Sprint Nextel Chases Rivals With Review

Sprint Nextel Corp. had been searching for the right pitch long before it launched a review of its creative account last week. The company spends $1.2 billion on ads annually, per TNS Media Intelligence.

The No. 3 telecommunications player’s current “Power up” campaign began in September, after just 13 months of telling consumers “Yes, you can.” The latter effort centered on personal empowerment via Sprint’s many services, while current ads focus on Sprint’s network capabilities. In that respect, “Power up,” which features actor Ron Livingston, resembles the positioning of No. 2 Verizon Wireless, which since October 2005 has used the tagline, “It’s the network.”

So, for the second time in two years, Sprint is seeking a “fresh approach” and “new thinking,” only this time it’s looking outside its two incumbent agencies. Sprint, whose subscriber growth significantly trails that of Verizon and No. 1 player Cingular, wants to consolidate its creative ad duties—currently split between TBWA\Chiat\Day (consumer-directed ads) and Publicis & Hal Riney (business-directed ads)—at a single shop.

Total revenue on the business is estimated at more than $40 million, with about $30 million at Omnicom Group’s TBWA\C\D in New York, said sources. Sprint is the New York shop’s largest client, as it is for the smaller Publicis Groupe’s Riney in San Francisco.

The Reston, Va.-based client is open to the incumbents participating, but if TBWA\C\D does, its effort will be led by its larger Playa del Rey, Calif., office, said sources. On Friday, TBWA\C\D was leaning toward pitching. Publicis Groupe CEO Maurice Lévy said Publicis would defend, though “we have not decided how. All options are being considered, with a decision due by Monday. One option is that Riney will work with other offices of Publicis [Groupe], but we can’t say yes or no at this point. The results of Riney’s work for Sprint are staggering, and we can serve Sprint well.”

Internally, Sprint execs are said to be developing an initial list of about a half-dozen agencies to visit that a source said includes independent Wieden + Kennedy in Portland, Ore.; MDC Partners’ Crispin Porter + Bogusky in Miami and Omnicom shops Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco, and DDB in Chicago (due to an AT&T conflict, DDB, won’t pursue it, the agency said). The client plans to finalize the list by next week, cut to a handful of finalists in February and hear final presentations in March, said a rep.

The search was triggered not only by pressure from rivals and Wall Street but frustrations with TBWA\C\D, said sources. Sprint CMO Mark Schweitzer has perceived a falloff in top-level attention to the account, which grew significantly after Sprint’s 2005 acquisition of Nextel. Since then, the shop has had turnover in account leadership and in its CEO and chief strategic officer ranks. Creatively, however, ecd Gerry Graf has been a constant, though he previously was supported by worldwide cd John Hunt, who returned to South Africa in 2004.

Still, Schweitzer last month said he was “very happy” with account chief Jamie Gallo, who filled the vacancy left by the August exit of Robert Birge. Asked about the key to Sprint’s longevity with TBWA, whose tenure dates back to its 2003 win of Nextel, Schweitzer said: “Not being complacent. A willingness to roll up the sleeves and not defend ad nauseum things that have been tried before. And stay hungry.”