BofA Draws Scores Of Shops In Holding Company Review

With $65 million in revenue— making it the largest account up for grabs so far this year—Bank of America has the Big 3 scrambling to cobble together a variety of holding company solutions.

Trying to address BofA’s stated “commitment to the holding company model,” WPP Group and Omnicom Group have put forth two different approaches.

And during a week when IPG chief Michael Roth met with BofA’s Catherine Bessant to gauge what went wrong and whether IPG should defend, the former steward of the account, IPG CMO Bruce Nelson, was publicly badmouthing IPG.

“My reasons for leaving have to do with my belief that Interpublic does not sufficiently support the holding company model that we had pioneered and built,” he said.

Roth responded by saying, “It’s ridiculous to suggest that Interpublic is not totally committed to the holding company model. Our continued commitment to the model and our success with it are not related to the contract issues, including a responsible departure timeline, that we have been discussing with Bruce Nelson. It’s unfortunate that he has chosen to address this private matter through a public forum.”

Nelson added that he informed IPG in June of his desire to leave. Many describe Nelson as close to Bessant, and his anticipated exit was a key factor in triggering the review, they say.

The notion that IPG’s ongoing financial accounting woes sparked the review is likely a red herring, others believe. “If that was the problem, why would [IPG] be defending?” asked one exec.

Sources at several of the 16 IPG shops that work on the client said there were no signs of dissatisfaction. For its part, BofA said, “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.”

IPG is expected to modify, but not structurally change, its offering in its defense, perhaps putting forth more than one leader, one source said. (Next in line on BofA after Nelson is Steven Hardwick, COO of Flag, a small unit that coordinates the day-to-day flow of work on the account. Hardwick did not return calls.)

The 16 IPG shops that work on BofA include Draft, Gotham, R/GA and Jack Morton. Since November 2002, they have been steered by Nelson.

At WPP Group, Martin Sorrell appears to be sticking with a holding company team approach (similar to that of IPG) by offering a passel of agencies under the stewardship of a top executive at the corporate level, sources said.

WPP is said to be offering up the services of some 20 agencies, including Berlin Cameron/ Red Cell, Soho Square, Grey Direct and Media-Com, sources said. Mark Read, WPP’s strategy director, is coordinating the pitch, though it is not expected he will run the business should WPP win the account, said sources.

Sources said WPP’s agency selection was limited by its relationship with HSBC, which employs more than a half-dozen WPP shops, including JWT, Ogilvy & Mather’s 141 and Young & Rubicam Brands’ Landor Associates.

Omnicom Group, which historically prefers to have its operating units on the front lines of pitches, is going one step further to service BofA.

As part of one scenario, the holding company is said to be building a dedicated, multidisciplinary unit combining various holding company assets, sources said.

To create the unit, or “portal,” the company is pooling resources from various shops, including BBDO, Targetbase (for direct marketing), Organic (for interactive) and Doremus, said sources. (For Omnicom’s pitch in 2002, during which it came in a “close second,” one source said, the pitch team included Arnell Group, BBDO, Organic and Targetbase.)

The approach this time around is similar to what Omnicom did to save the GTE account in 1992 by creating Focus GTE (a compilation of execs from DDB, TracyLocke and sibling agencies), as well as the formation of Element 79, set up to handle Quaker Oats business in 2001.

The executives involved in Omnicom’s effort include corporate executives Tom Harrison, Susan Smith Ellis and Michael Birkin and BBDO Worldwide CEO Andrew Robertson, said sources.

In general, holding company pitches are considered by many to diminish the importance of individual agency brands. One critic, in response to Omnicom’s approach, said, “Why would you need any particular agency anymore?”

Echoed another naysayer, “This is a dangerous path—what if every client wanted a dedicated unit? Where does it end?”

The stakes are high in this highly accelerated, three-way shootout, which kicked off three weeks ago and could be over this month.

Last week, the contenders met with client executives in New York over several days, and more meetings are expected this week. The client hopes to select a winner by the end of August. A BofA rep could not comment on the reasons driving the quick-paced review.

Bessant is but one decision maker following a restructuring two weeks ago. She now reports to a division president (Liam McGee); she previously reported to CEO Kenneth Lewis. Another player is Anne Finucane, the former CMO at FleetBoston, which BofA acquired last year. The Boston-based Finucane’s new title could not be ascertained, but a representative confirmed that she now oversees corporate communications and will be “part of the decision process.”

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