Verizon to Hear New Ideas From 3 IPG Shops

To evolove ‘Test Man’ campaign, wireless client goes beyond Lowe.

In search of the next big idea for its 2-year-old “Test Man” campaign out of lead agency Lowe, sources said Verizon Wireless is inviting two other Interpublic Group shops to pitch creative ideas: Verizon roster shop Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos and McCann-Erickson. And since Verizon Wireless is a $700 million advertiser, IPG CEO David Bell is said to be personally involved.

The No. 1 mobile-service provider’s bid to look beyond Lowe comes after two years of flux in the campaign’s creative and management leadership. And given recent changes in the marketplace—starting Nov. 24, cell-phone owners can keep the same number if they switch providers—and bare-knuckle competition from chief rivals Cingular and AT&T, Verizon executives “just haven’t seen the creative focus they need,” according to one source. “The big creative ideas haven’t been there.”

Since the July 2002 departure of Rich Levy, gcd on the business at then-lead shop Bozell, the source said, “they haven’t gotten the right creative chemistry and management they’re looking for.”

Sources said the client is looking to evolve the campaign, in which the “Test Man” character walks around with a cell phone glued to his ear, repeatedly asking, “Can you hear me now?” That line has pervaded pop-culture—Johnny Depp quotes it in the recent film Once Upon a Time in Mexico, as does Denzel Washington in his new movie, Out of Time. When the campaign launched in 2001, Test Man was a central figure in each ad, but recently he has served only as a brand icon at the end of spots. The tagline is, “We never stop working for you.”

“They know how painful it will be to switch agencies,” said another source. “But on the other hand, they think, ‘What other options do we have?’ ”

Three creative directors have worked on the account since Levy’s departure. Ecd David Nobay held the creative reins for eight months, then left the agency. In April, Lowe named gcd Richard Wallace to lead day-to-day creative efforts, but sources said Lowe ecd Dean Hacohen recently has become involved.

On the account side, John Mittnacht left the agency less than a year after he was tapped to oversee the business in March 2001, and was replaced by Andy Ball. A more senior account executive, Steve Hardwick, relinquished his responsibility on the business to assume duties on Bank of America, first at the agency level and then at IPG.

One constant has been Tom Bernardin, U.S. CEO of Lowe, which inherited the account following its February merger with sister shop Bozell. The relationship predates the 2000 merger of Bell Atlantic Mobile—whose $100 million account was held by Bozell—and three other carriers that spawned Verizon Wireless. “Tom holds the account very dear to him,” a source said.

Hill, Holliday is a Verizon Wireless roster shop via its New York office, which creates ads for the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions, but its Boston office is the one participating in the drill. McCann’s effort is being led out of its New York headquarters, according to sources. (IPG direct marketing unit Draft is also a Verizon roster shop, but is not part of the search.)

McCann’s presence is curious because the shop is believed to still handle corporate-image duties for Verizon competitor Sprint. Spending on that assignment has shrunk in recent years. Neither McCann nor Sprint were available for comment at press time Friday.

The three agencies are slated to present creative concepts to the Bedminster, N.J., client this week, according to sources. The client intends to make a decision by Thanksgiving, with the winning work to break in early 2004, said one source. (Lowe is said to be producing work already sold that will meet the client’s needs for the rest of the year.)

Bell declined comment and referred calls to the client, which could not be reached at press time. The three IPG shops either declined comment or could not be reached.

IPG’s huddle strategy is by no means new. Last month, General Motors, through IPG, solicited creative ideas on the $800 million Chevrolet account—whose lead agency is IPG’s Campbell-Ewald in Warren, Mich.—from sisters shops Hill, Holliday; Foote, Cone & Belding; Lowe; and McCann-Erickson [Adweek, Sept. 15]. The latter two agencies are GM roster shops.

And last year, when Coca-Cola sought new creative concepts on then-Lowe client Diet Coke, IPG offered up FCB, The Martin Agency and Gotham. Coke shifted its estimated $40 million U.S. account to FCB after selecting an idea from the agency.

With some 34 million subscribers, Verizon Wireless is comfortably ahead of primary competitors Cingular Wireless (22 million), AT&T Wireless ($21.4 million), Sprint PCS (18.8 million) and Nextel (11.7 million). Earlier this month, Nextel and AT&T Wireless launched high-profile campaigns from Omnicom Group’s TBWA\ Chiat\Day in New York and Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco, respectively.