Wieden Parts With A Very Different AOL

NEW YORK There was more behind Wieden + Kennedy’s resignation last week of AOL’s estimated $50 million branding assignment than the “creative differences” cited by the agency.

While differences existed, much has changed at AOL since the Portland, Ore., agency was hired in June 2003 for what was then considered a $100 million job. Those changes also propelled the split.

BBDO in New York, which, like Wieden, joined the AOL roster on evp of brand marketing Len Short’s watch, is now pitching the Time Warner unit on a new branding effort and will present it in the next few weeks, sources said. Short left the company in February after little more than a year.

If the idea was for BBDO to handle the launch of products such as the premium Broadband service and Wieden to take on what was seen as the more prestigious branding effort, it never really worked out that way. In the end, CEO Dan Wieden’s shop produced a small selection of spots, the most high-profile being the Super Bowl launch of AOL’s TopSpeed technology. Using the Teutul family of Discovery Channel’s American Chopper, the estimated $10 million effort featured seven 15-second teasers and four 30-second spots.

BBDO handled what was probably AOL’s most high-profile branding initiative during Short’s tenure—the “Life needs” effort, which broke last August to launch AOL 9.0 Optimized and positioned the brand as a solution for a variety of everyday wants.

It’s not that Wieden didn’t continue to pursue a branding campaign. The shop is said to have pitched at least half a dozen ideas this year.

“I think both sides just got frustrated,” one source said, adding that BBDO was more willing and able to do the “heavy lifting” required in the day-to-day servicing of the account. Richard Taylor, svp of brand marketing at AOL, would not elaborate on the relationship with Wieden beyond the statement the agency issued last week.

BBDO’s goals for a brand campaign will differ from what Wieden was originally hired to do and from where the brand was even as recently as last fall. At that time, AOL was considered to be in a freefall, with its bedrock domestic dial-up subscription service losing 1.2 million subscribers between second-quarter 2002 and second-quarter 2003, as many consumers migrated to high-speed connections. Though the falloff in dial-up subscribers continues, the problem is now recognized as industrywide, not just AOL’s.

Just as important, the Dulles, Va.-based company was pursuing a subscription strategy in 2003 that at the time was relatively new—selling individuals on a number of services ranging from an exclusive-content service, AOL for Broadband, to features that offer additional safety and security online. The strategy has met with at least some success. On an earnings conference call last Wednesday, Don Logan, chairman of Time Warner’s Media and Communications Group, said these so-called premium services had 2.9 million subscribers in the second quarter.

But since other companies offer many of those services on an a la carte basis, AOL’s branding goals, Taylor said last week, are now to portray itself as “really listening to our members” and highlighting the “sophisticated ways of using AOL that just weren’t available before. … The brand stands for going beyond the ordinary.”