Asher/Gould Hard at Work on Image Campaign--Its Own : Advertising: A power struggle among namesakes has gone on for years at the successful but low-profile L.A. ad agency. A third party was called in to run the show.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Few people outside the advertising world have heard of the agency Asher/Gould.

In fact, even some in the business don't know much about this Los Angeles ad firm. That's why many executives in the local ad community were more than mildly surprised in recent weeks when this usually docile agency snatched the $15-million Baskin-Robbins ice cream account and then landed the much sought-after $20-million to $30-million Suzuki automotive business.

Although Asher/Gould ranks among the 20 largest agencies in Los Angeles, it has traditionally kept a low profile. Its ads don't win many national awards. And its leaders rarely rub shoulders with the big shots on Madison Avenue. It simply creates ads that sell products.

When Asher/Gould picked up the Suzuki and Baskin-Robbins accounts last month, it seemed to some that this suddenly hot agency could do no wrong. There is, however, a more complex story at Asher/Gould. With fast growth comes struggle. And during the past few years of accelerated expansion, a power struggle developed between the agency's two namesakes.

Insiders at the firm say that despite Asher/Gould's recent success, its two founders have bickered for years. When one man talks, the other often corrects him. The rift reached a crescendo late last year when Harold Asher filed suit against his own agency. "It was an internal fight between Gould and myself," Asher said. "But we've agreed to make changes."

That suit--which the court ordered sealed--was finally settled out of court last week, agency executives told The Times. At issue was management responsibilities. And in a bid to appease the agency's partners--and keep clients content--an executive who joined the company just four years ago has been named its new president.

"You had two guys with basic differences of opinions," said Bruce Silverman, the new president. "Remember," said Silverman, who has been the agency's chief creative officer and was previously the creative head of BBDO/West, "this is a company that grew incredibly quickly in a short period of time."

Of course, management shuffling and lawsuits are nothing new to the advertising world. But what makes these issues at Asher/Gould of particular interest is that, right now, the agency is considered one of the hottest on the West Coast.

In a matter of weeks, Asher/Gould took on an estimated $45 million in new business. And in the past four years, the agency has tripled in size, with annual billings now of more than $100 million. During that same period, its employee roll more than doubled to 104 workers. Even the trade magazine Adweek has placed Asher/Gould on its list of "hottest" agencies in the West.

"Getting an automotive account immediately positions you as a national agency with full capabilities," said Morley Gould, the agency's co-founder. "This has established us as a factor in the national marketplace."

But it came at a price. Asher/Gould executives say they spent more than $200,000 to win the Suzuki business--a massive amount for a mid-sized agency to spend for business that it had no guarantee of winning. "Every presentation you make is a bet," said Silverman. "We've been betting a lot the last few years--and lately we've been winning."

Clearly, he is right. Besides Suzuki and Baskin-Robbins, the agency's client list includes advertisers like the Wherehouse record store chain and the California Egg Commission. And one of its largest clients is Pabst Brewing Co.

Until now, Asher/Gould executives kept mum about the key management changes--and the lawsuit that was filed by Asher in Los Angeles Superior Court in July, 1988. After all, up to $45 million in new business was on the line with clients Suzuki and Baskin-Robbins. "With all the new business going on, we didn't want to confuse the prospects," said Silverman.

The management changes actually took effect several months ago. Under these changes, neither Asher nor Gould holds the chief executive title. But it appears that Gould has lost some clout in the shuffle. A five-man executive committee--on which Asher and Gould both serve--will jointly make chief executive decisions. Asher, who had been president of the agency, has been named chairman of that key, decision-making committee. And Gould, who had been president of Asher/Gould, is now chairman of the agency.

This is all a long way from the agency's humble beginnings. Asher and Gould have known each other since they were teen-agers. They attended Los Angeles High School together. Nearly 30 years ago they graduated from USC and founded Asher/Gould. It was decided then that Asher's name would come first, explained Gould, "because we wanted to be the top name in the Yellow Pages."

Oddly, Asher/Gould is the only agency that either man has worked for. And during those years, they have certainly won the respect of some competitors.

"Asher/Gould is an agency that doesn't let artistic fantasy distort its mission," said Jack Roth, president of Admarketing, the Los Angeles agency that frequently competes with Asher/Gould for retail clients. "The purpose of ads is to sell things like cars and ice cream, and these guys understand that better than just about anyone."

At the same time, Roth warned, "a good reputation can turn to a bad one in a week if you don't perform."

Certainly, Asher/Gould has performed admirably for most of its clients. After an extensive review, for example, American Savings Bank recently decided to keep its annual $25-million account with the agency. Under its former name, American Savings & Loan Assn., the S&L; required a federal bailout to survive insolvency. Asher/Gould quickly created commercials that bragged about one of the bank's strongest assets--its highly rated customer service. Officials from the thrift said they were unable to find anyone else that could create more effective advertising.

Suzuki said it picked Asher/Gould for one key reason. "They demonstrated a strong ability to focus in on who our customers are," said Tom Meyers, national advertising manager at American Suzuki Motor Co. The Japanese car maker saw sales slump last year after a consumer group said its Samurai sports utility vehicles were prone to rolling over. Even though the federal government appeared to refute those charges, Suzuki has since been plagued with a nagging image problem.

To overcome that, Asher/Gould plans to create an ad campaign that "accentuates the positive aspects of Suzuki," said Silverman. "We will not devote any advertising to refuting charges that have been refuted enough."

Now the shop that seems to specialize in helping clients overcome image problems appears to have one of its own.

But officials at Asher/Gould say the agency always operates best under pressure. And that's the way it has always been. "We're a great fourth-quarter agency," said Silverman. Even the agency that competed with Asher/Gould for the Suzuki business gives the firm high marks. "They're known for one thing--retail advertising that sells product," said Kent Cooper, vice president of public relations at Hakuhodo Advertising. "Suzuki badly wants to move product, and that's Asher/Gould's strength."

Not everyone, however, sings high praises for Asher/Gould.

"In the beginning they promised us a lot, but in the end they didn't deliver," said Ben Frankel, vice president of merchandising at Aaron Bros., the City of Commerce-based art supply chain. In fact, Frankel was so unhappy with the results from the agency that he fired Asher/Gould after less than one year.

"There was a lot of political infighting among the troops," said Frankel. "The inside politics got in the way of good business."

But Asher/Gould executives insist that the inner squabblings are all over now.

"The story isn't the lawsuit," insists Silverman. "The bigger story is that we have a new management team and we're all working together now."

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