SNTA Is at DeWitt's End

The question being asked last week after the Syndicated Network Television Association parted ways with its president, Gene DeWitt, is, do syndicators really need an advertising trade association?

There's no clear answer. Apparently the members (dominated by the major studios) think they do. They've retained the same headhunter that found DeWitt—Heidrick & Struggles—to search for his replacement.

But others in the business think they would be better served by folding SNTA and closing ranks behind NATPE, so that syndicators would at least have one strong association instead of two groups that are in clear disarray. (Ironically, NATPE's new president Rick Feldman was a candidate for the SNTA job along with DeWitt).

Chris Rohrs, president of the Television Bureau of Advertising, wasn't offering any advice, but said he believes the syndicators could thrive in the TVB tent. He said he would contact SNTA's board to look for ways to work together. "I'm open to talk about anything."

One SNTA member reached last week said it was important that the organization be kept afloat to generate awareness about the benefits of syndication to the advertiser and agency community.

But outsiders were puzzled over the fact that the association's members—who weren't talking on the record last week—can't seem to get their act together, find a common message they can agree on, and back a staff long term to get that message out. Observers note that the turmoil that led to DeWitt's departure has been out in the open for several months. And not having a plan in place upon the announcement of his departure doesn't say much about the organization. "The way this played out really makes them look stupid," said one executive familiar with the association's operations.

Added a senior-level ad agency executive: "The SNTA is just a dysfunctional organization to begin with. Syndication is its own worst enemy and they're lucky they benefited from this year's hot market."

DeWitt was the second senior level advertising veteran in the last two years to head the organization. He joined the SNTA in April of 2002 after running Optimedia, a unit of Publicis. But he wasn't there long before he started butting heads with the then chairman of the association, Marc Hirsch, who runs the barter advertising division at Paramount.

Some sources last week questioned DeWitt's hiring in the first place. He wasn't exactly a big supporter of the medium when he had his own ad agency, DeWitt Media, sources said.

Sources say Hirsch, who headed up the internal SNTA search committee for a new president in 2001, and DeWitt, ended up disliking each other. The reason? DeWitt, used to running his own company (which he sold to Publicis) and calling the shots, thought he was being micro-managed by Hirsch.

There was lots of tension leading up to this year's first annual SNTA conference in New York. And while members generally thought it came off pretty well (agencies also gave it good marks), Hirsch and others thought DeWitt's presentation was not well done. And, sources say, much of the SNTA conference's planning and logistics were carried out by the members—particularly Hirsch and Universal Television's Elizabeth Herbst, not DeWitt and SNTA.

That's partly due the fact that the trade group never has had much of a staff. While SNTA members have increased the budget of their trade group over the years, it's always been a shoestring operation. Sources say that the main reason Allison Bodenmann, the agency veteran who held the job before DeWitt, opted not to renew her contract in 2001 was that she tired of doing everything without an adequate support staff.

According to IRS files, she made $221,250.

Sources say SNTA had agreed to pay DeWitt more than $600,000 a year under a three-year contract. If nothing else, that salary showed that syndicators were ramping up the budget and at least trying to take the association to some ill-defined "next level." What kind of a settlement DeWitt gets for the last two years of his contract remains to be seen.

DeWitt, who didn't return calls last week, also had enough left over in his budget to hire Hadassa Gerber, a top notch research executive that worked with him at DeWitt Media and later at Publicis.