Bank Of America Mulls Withdrawal From IPG

Bank of America’s decision to shop for another partner to handle $600 million in billings now shared by 16 Interpublic Group agencies illustrates the risks of placing stewardship of a mega-client in the hands of a single executive—in this case, IPG chief marketing officer Bruce Nelson, sources said. Also, BofA’s desire to house its sprawling account at a single holding com-pany points up the challenges in moving such a large, complex account to another holding company.

Nelson was said to be unhappy with IPG and had clashed in recent months with CEO Michael Roth over how to manage the business, said sources. Roth is believed to have preferred to have operating units take the lead, while Nelson embodied the model of managing an account from the corporate offices.

The disagreement prompted Nelson to signal his desire to leave, which sources said contributed to BofA’s decision to contact Omnicom Group and WPP Group. “This is egos and power,” said one source. As for über account chiefs like Nelson, the source added, “If you’re going to create them, you better take care of them.”

The bank confirmed the review on Friday. “Consistent with good business practices, it is in our best interests to periodically evaluate the capabilities offered by IPG and other holding companies like WPP and Omnicom,” a rep said in a statement, adding, “We are and will remain fully committed to the holding company model.”

Finding a single holding company to handle all the bank’s needs—including advertising, direct marketing, media buying, interactive marketing, events and promotions—may prove challenging, given conflicts at WPP and Omnicom agencies. At WPP, JWT handles HSBC Corp., Ogilvy & Mather has AmericanExpress and Young & Rubicam unit Wunderman has Citibank. And within Omnicom, BBDO has E*Trade, and DDB has The Bank of New York. Omnicom’s TBWA and WPP’s Berlin Cameron/ Red Cell appear to be open in the category. That said, corporate image advertising represents a fraction of the bank’s marketing, with a huge chunk in direct response and other disciplines, said sources. Total revenue is estimated at $65 million.

The status of Nelson, who is said to be close to BofA global marketing executive Catherine Bessant, re-mained murky at press time. Some sources said he had resigned and did not intend to stay, while others remained optimistic that IPG could keep him. Nelson did not return calls, and IPG declined comment.

IPG appeared to be surprised by BofA’s overtures to rivals.Omnicom and WPP were expected to meet with client execs this week in New York. As of late Friday, IPG had not been fired, and it’s unclear if it will defend. In a statement, a company rep said, “We are proud of the work we have done for Bank of America and the results it has produced in the marketplace. We remain committed to the client.”