The finalists that emerged last week in BellSouth's agency review—Arnold, Grey, The Richards Group and Merkley Newman Harty & Partners—will have to deliver more than superlative creative and media planning expertise to win the estimated $120 million account.
The Atlanta-based company, irked by a communications breakdown with New York roster shop Merkley, is demanding topflight account service, according to sources. "BellSouth feels that they are a big plum in this lean year," said one agency executive.
Merkley's handling of the August departure of partner Steve Harty, who oversaw the BellSouth account, was a factor in the decision to review, sources said. Though generally satisfied with the shop's "Connect and create something" campaign, BellSouth was displeased it was not informed of Harty's exit and other executive-level decisions that could impact the agency-client relationship.
"[BellSouth] had great concerns with what happened in that situation," said Ken Bowes of Wanamaker Associates, the Atlanta firm conducting the review. Client executives would not discuss the impact of Harty's departure; Merkley officials declined comment.
BellSouth last week announced the layoff of 3,000 employees—despite an 8 percent revenue increase to $22 billion for the first nine months of 2001. Of late, ad spending has declined in favor of direct marketing initiatives. Those capabilities, along with big-brand experience and category expertise, are critical pitch criteria, sources said.
BellSouth, the third-largest regional telecom behind Verizon and SBC Communications, is continuing to expand and position itself as a national, even global force (it operates in 44 countries).
Finalists will be briefed this week on creative projects, due in early December. A decision is expected by year's end.
Grey in New York, the hottest in terms of recent account wins, is pitching through its darkGrey division. Executive creative director Dave Tutin and vice president and group management supervisor Rob Kingston have considerable category experience. Arnold in Boston helped guide Verizon/Bell Atlantic in the 1990s. Richards in Dallas has won some midsized accounts.—with Andrew McMains and Alicia Griswold