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New Image Is a Postal Priority

Embattled U.S. Postal Service persists in its lengthy review of its ad business

Illustration: Oliver Munday

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The U.S. Postal Service has financial, structural and, yes, existential issues to deal with, yet it’s still scrutinizing its advertising. And, at 13 months and counting, the mail giant’s ongoing review of its ad account has surpassed last year’s marathon ExxonMobil search and threatens to leapfrog all-time sagas like the U.S. Army (1 1/2 years) and the California Lottery (3 1/2 years).

Despite the elapsed time, the USPS has only collected agency replies to a request for proposals at this point. Participants don’t know when the process will end, let alone what the next steps will be. “There is no specified time line,” admitted a postal representative. Welcome to the sometimes bizarro world of account reviews.

The Postal Service lost $3.3 billion in Q1, and the operation faces the prospect of bankruptcy unless it shutters branches and slashes services. So, advertising seems to be the least of the USPS’ problems, which leads some industry consultants to conclude that it would be wise to postpone the search.

“I don’t think advertising can do a whole lot at this point,” said Russel Wohlwerth of External View Consulting Group. “They’ve got so many issues, [the review] is almost akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” Also, said Avi Dan of Avidan Strategies, “It’s not clear what the post office would look like at the end of the process.”

That’s not to say that marketing won’t play a key role once the macro issues are resolved. Indeed, the CEO of a shop chasing the account relishes the opportunity to help reshape the business. What has been a big, relatively secure, multiyear account is now just an interesting strategic challenge.

On the brand strategy front, the USPS faces the tall task of redefining its relevance in the digital age, said Mark Kaminsky of brand consultancy SS+K. He rated the challenge as a seven on a scale of one to 10.

Despite its larger business problems, the USPS soldiers on with its search. As the rep put it, “In whatever we do, our core strategies remain the same: help grow our business and deliver better service to the American public, regardless of the current challenges we face.”

Well, at least incumbents Campbell-Ewald and Draftfcb are safe—for now. In late 2011, the USPS extended their contracts for another year. Must have known then it wasn’t going to be overnight express.