AOL Shifts Brand Work to Hill, Holliday

BOSTON AOL has tapped roster shop Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos to craft its brand advertising following presentations from the Interpublic Group agency and Omnicom Group’s BBDO, according to sources.

AOL spent nearly $300 million in measured media last year and close to $140 million through the first half of 2006, per Nielsen Monitor-Plus.

Boston-based Hill, Holliday is now tasked with crafting national campaigns in online and offline media supporting the overall AOL brand and explaining its shift from a dial-up access provider to an ad-supported portal, sources said.

BBDO in New York, which had handled AOL’s overarching brand work, stays on the AOL roster for product-specific assignments, per sources. BBDO’s most recent ads for the client broke in January and portrayed AOL as a “high-speed” brand [Adweek Online, Jan. 27] BBDO has worked for AOL for the past three years.

Agency executives either could not be reached or declined comment. A client representative confirmed a “new assignment” for Hill, Holliday but would not elaborate.

The billings added by Hill, Holliday could not immediately be determined, but sources said the lion’s share of AOL’s ad spending would now support initiatives from that agency.

Hill, Holliday had previously handled various AOL projects. This spring it fashioned ads touting the launch of AOL’s In2TV service that streams classic Warner Bros. TV shows such as Growing Pains and Wonder Woman. That work was tagged “Online. Anytime. Always free,” and it literally depicted a “couch potato” in the form of an animated, rerun-addicted spud [Adweek Online, April 17].

Hill, Holliday was a finalist in AOL’s 2003 review won by BBDO and has long-standing ties to the client through vice chairman Ted Leonsis, who had hired the shop in 1999 to produce ads for his Washington Capitals NHL team. (Leonsis will leave Dulles, Va.-based AOL in January to pursue personal interests.)

Agency creative chief Kevin Moehlenkamp also has a high-tech pedigree, guiding Microsoft efforts at IPG’s McCann Erickson in San Francisco before joining Hill, Holliday in 2004.

Sources said Moehlenkamp’s success on Microsoft’s well-remembered integrated campaigns for its MSN service (starring a guy in a butterfly suit) was a big factor in AOL’s decision to tap the shop for branding. Simply put, AOL now looks to Hill, Holliday to redefine its offering as Moehlenkamp did for MSN when the butterfly ads launched several years ago.

Moreover, not unlike AOL, the agency is in the midst of a transitional phase. It is preparing for the retirement of co-founder and chairman Jack Connors later this year. He has steadily handed over management chores to other executives, such as CEO Mike Sheehan.

Hill, Holliday has generally struggled in recent years, winning few major pitches and losing several key clients, such as FleetBoston, which was acquired by Bank of America. Its last major win was the $60 million Liberty Mutual business late last year, though the shop’s New York office picked up the $20 million Smith Barney account three months ago.

The agency has a history of building technology brands. It produced notable campaigns for AOL competitor Terra Lycos as the decade began, and in the 1990s handled software company Lotus Development, now a unit of IBM.

Hill, Holliday also had a role in helping personal computers gain their initial popularity in the 1980s through its groundbreaking TV commercials for Wang Labs, then a top PC maker and IBM rival.

—with Kathleen Sampey and Brian Morrissey