Richards Makes BellSouth Finals

The finalists in BellSouth’s ongoing review—Arnold, Grey, The Richards Group and Merkley Newman Harty & Partners—will have to deliver more than superlative creative and media expertise to win the estimated $120 million account.

The Atlanta-based client, irked by a communications breakdown with incumbent Merkley, is demanding topflight account service, sources said.

“BellSouth feels that they are a big plum in this lean year,” said an agency executive involved in the review. “And they should get all the attention they deserve.”

New York roster shop Merkley’s handling of the departure last summer of partner Steve Harty [Adweek Aug. 14], who oversaw the BellSouth account, was a major factor in the decision to review, sources said. Though generally satisfied with the shop’s recent work tagged “Connect and create something,” BellSouth was displeased that it was not informed of Harty’s abrupt departure andother executive-level decisions it felt would impact the agency-client relationship.

“They [BellSouth] had great concerns with what happened in that situation,” said search consultant Ken Bowes of Wanamaker Associates, the Atlanta-based firm overseeing BellSouth’s review.

Other factors that figured into the review process were more bottom-line oriented: Last week, BellSouth announced the layoff of 3,000 employees. Published reports suggest the firm is exploring a merger with AT&T. Over the last few years, ad spending has declined in favor of direct marketing initiatives. Direct marketing capabilities, sources said, are a Merkley strength.

Big-brand experience and category expertise are also critical review elements, sources said.

BellSouth executives would not discuss the impact of Harty’s departure on its decision.”We want one agency to do it all, but we’re not saying we won’t choose two,” said BellSouth spokesman Jeff Battcher. “We want one corporate brand image that can differentiate us from the others in the space.”

The four finalists will be briefed this week on their creative projects, due in early December. A decision is expected before year’s end. The contenders have made winning the business a top priority.

Grey in New York is the hottest in terms of recent account wins, having added Doublclick, Oracle and Unisys. The others shops have not fared as well in competitive situations.

The biggest wins this year for Arnold in Boston—Citizens Bank, Fidelity Investments—came without pitches. In September, the shop had to withdraw from the $30 million PeopleSoft review due to a conflict with client Monster.com.

Richards in Dallas has won mid-sized accounts—Bernhardt Furniture, Giant Eagle, MetroPCS—but failed to gain victories in several national pitches.

Merkley has been active on the new business front this year, pursuing accounts such as Michelin, Stop & Shop and Mohegan Sun. The New York shop reached the finals of both Mohegan Sun and Stop & Shop, but came up empty; Michelin cut the agency before the final round.

In pursuing BellSouth, each shop has a strong if varied hand to play.

BellSouth—the No. 3 regionaltelco behind Verizon and SBC Communications—is continuing to ex-pand far beyond its Southern roots, positioning itself as a national, even global force (it offers services in 44 countries).

Arnold helped shepherd Verizon/Bell Atlantic through similar expansion in the 1990s and will draw from that experience for its pitch to BellSouth, sources said. Agency president Fran Kelly and chief creative Ron Lawner are leading the pitch and will draw input from managing partner Karen Driscoll, who oversees integrated services, and Beth Rice, who leads the shop’s promotions unit.

Grey is pitching BellSouth through darkGrey, its tech/telecom division. Rob Kingston, vice president and group management supervisor and formerly of FCB, where he worked on AT&T’s attempts to branch into local markets, and executive creative director Dave Tutin, who has worked on AT&T and Sprint campaigns, view BellSouth as a possible foundation for building darkGrey into a niche player.

Dallas-based Richards, the smallest contender, lacks a broad network, but its telecommunications experience includes the broadband Internet access division of AT&T (AT&T @ Home) and wireless providers PrimeCo, MetroPCS and Nokia. Richards’ most recent television campaign for Nokia broke last month. One commercial shows a couple standing on a hill at night overlooking a city. As they telephone to make dinner reservations, their restaurant lights up in the town below.

Another BellSouth incumbent, WestWayne in Atlanta, will retain the company’s Yellow Pages business regardless of the review’s outcome, the client said