Accounts In Review: Priceline.Com

Budget: $10-15 million
Decision date: June
Incumbent: Heater Advertising, Boston
Market Situation
Priceline has a slim advantage in being among the first to start the name-your-price dot-com revolution, but the 1-year-old client must formulate a long-range plan before its bubble bursts. Priceline faces encroachment on all sides, from shopping, travel and auction sites, including upstarts like (also in review) and me-toos such as Its head start on rivals was built on a heavy schedule of drive-time radio ads featuring Star Trek’s William Shatner, who is also an investor.
Priceline set out to simulate a working relationship with each finalist, chemistry and process being key. Equal, unfettered access to client executives was promised with the assignment to develop a strategy and up to three creative approaches. “The agency’s approaches are different but they’re all getting to about the same place,” said a source. That’s heartening to some on the client side who are afraid that money is being spent on “educated guessing.” One wild card is how to use Shatner. His equity is believed to be high – both as a financial stakeholder and pitchman. “The question is, when is the equity a liability?” asked a source. The review panel includes CEO Richard Braddock, COO Jesse Fink, svp of marketing and product development Paul Breitenbach and svp of strategic planning Jord Poster. Consultant Jay Silverstein is advising. They are not the only constituents, however. Priceline’s stock has been stung by a recent market dip. Its price has risen to $165 but at press time it was at $88 1/2. Last week, a source rated the agencies “dead even.”
Cliff Freeman and Partners, New York
Freeman’s approach will likely target the budget-conscious, Internet- savvy shopper while providing some “comfort zone” to attract first-time or novice Internet users, sources said. While some client executives downplayed the significance of related experience in the frenzied dot-com category, Freeman’s over-the-top commercials for have dramatically increased traffic to that site and the agency will be drawing the client’s attention to that. Coming off last week’s Budget win, president and executive creative director Arthur Bijur is leading the pitch.

Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos, Boston
The shop is wired to the client through Priceline’s strategic planner, Jord Poster, who worked at the Boston-based agency a few years ago. That connection, while downplayed by both client and agency officials, should not be discounted as a reason for the shop’s inclusion. Agency director of new business June Blocklin is leading the pitch team, along with president and chief creative Fred Bertino. They will draw on all the shop’s practice areas. Adding firepower to the pitch is a creative team recently recruited to Hill, Holliday from Heater, the agency that crafted some of Priceline’s original advertising. The largest of the contenders, the Interpublic Group of Cos.-owned shop bills upwards of $700 million. It plans to service the southern Connecticut client from its New York office, run by Chuck Kushell.

Merkley Newman Harty, New York
Like Hill, Holliday, MNH has a previous connection to Priceline: The $270 million agency entered the review on the recommendation of Silverstein, a former marketing executive at client Oxford Health Plans. The shop sees a broader challenge than the assignment: How do you brand a unique business model that transcends the Internet? MNH is still integrating the $125 million Mercedes Benz account, which has not been without its problems – Marty Cooke’s resignation in March as chief creative officer was accelerated by the arrival of Mercedes. But he was replaced by a triumvirate of creatives who had worked on the account when it was at Lowe & Partners/SMS, and that team just successfully pitched Keds. One interesting coincidence: Priceline founder Jay Walker turned up on the cover of Forbes – an MNH client – right as the review started.

Wieden & Kennedy, New York
Wieden, the smallest agency here, comes into this week’s pitch celebrating a new assignment: It landed duties for Sure Trade’s online brokerage to add to its traditional advertising tasks for that client. The news will doubtless cheer the New York office, which has labored to get out from under the shadow of its Portland, Ore., parent. Since being set up in 1997 to service ESPN, the shop has won only Sure Trade and CK One. Creative directors Michael Prieve and Stacy Wall – both Nike veterans since 1987 and 1991, respectively – are leading the pitch.