In the cutthroat telecommunications market, the mighty AT&T has been under siege by MCI and other rivals. ANN COOPER talks to MCI’s agency, Messner Vetere Berger" data-categories = "" data-popup = "" data-ads = "Yes" data-company = "[]" data-outstream = "yes" data-auth = "" >

The Calls of the Wild

In the cutthroat telecommunications market, the mighty AT&T has been under siege by MCI and other rivals. ANN COOPER talks to MCI’s agency, Messner Vetere Berger

At this year’s Irish Advertising Festival in Kinsale, Ireland, Tom Messner, in an unrestrained Queen’s accent, urged his audience of U.K. delegates to adopt more U.S. advertising techniques. The garrulous principal of Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG illustrated his point with client MCI’s attack ads (‘telecommunications,’ he punctuated, ‘is the business to be in). Ridiculing the opposition can actually be good for you, he continued, pointing to the lesson of political advertising. And it’s surprising, Messner concluded, that the British, engaged in their own telecommunications battle between British Telecom and Mercury Communications, didn’t do it more often.
The reaction (among those sober enough to react at all – Kinsale being as much about the quality of the food and drink as the quality of advertising), says Messner, was flattering. While some pointed out that the U.K. didn’t have MCI’s big budgets and that much negative advertising was awful, most asked a lot of questions. ‘It went extremely well,’ he says.
The wisdom of Messner’s advice to the U.K. remains to be seen, but its astuteness for MCI, the $500 million agency’s biggest client, is undisputable. Ever since it first won the account from Wells Rich Greene in 1990, the agency has gone for AT&T’s jugular in a battle that’s been described as more cutthroat than Coke vs. Pepsi.
At stake is the $60-billion market for domestic long-distance service. Though AT&T still dominates with a 60% share, ingenues MCI with 17% and Sprint with 9-10% are clearly gaining ground.
And huge budgets – MCI and Sprint each spend $100 million-plus and AT&T spends nearly five times that much – feed the category’s ravenous appetite for TV, print and billboard campaigns.
So far, the MCI-MVBMS partnership has not only threatened AT&T’s superiority and nudged MCI’s market share up two points, it’s also helped determine MVBMS’s internal structure.
All three of the agency’s creative partners – Messner, Ron Berger and Barry Vetere – work on different aspects of the MCI account. But much of MCI’s residential TV aimed at the long-distance market – some 150 to 200 spots a year – are produced by what the agency dubs its SWAT team, an in-house production facility headed by Vetere. Other members include editor Scott Gaylord, producer Sherry Bloom, writer Howie Krakow, as well as numerous floating editors, producers and creatives.
The SWAT team, which almost everyone in the agency has worked on at some point, is like an amorphous fire department, says Vetere. ‘We don’t work the way other agencies work. We direct out of self-defense. It’s a constant market battle, a day-to-day endeavor. We can direct and edit in-house. It gives you an edge.’
MCI agrees. ‘There’s an evolution currently going on among agencies,’ says Angela Dunlap, president of consumer marketing, ‘and Messner Vetere are on the leading edge. They’re not only specialists, they’re also in tune with what is going on in the marketplace.’
What’s going on in the marketplace is highly sensitive, according to Vetere, who’s highly sensitive himself. ‘I’m the last guy in the world who wants publicity,’ he says, adamantly refusing to have his photo taken. ‘The future of the agency depends on this account. I’m very shy about talking about our accomplishments because of client sensitivity. There’s espionage going on.’
Espionage? ‘It’s self-evident that the competition watches each other very closely,’ Vetere is quick to explain. ‘One doesn’t leave one’s edits lying around a conference room.’
Well, there’s no doubt the stakes are high for all concerned. When the agency first pitched the account, MCI was losing market share. ‘Our initial job was to rejuvenate MCI’s image as a friendly young company that saved you money,’ says Vetere. The agency recommended a multi-level approach, a blend of numerous elements. The strategy won them the account – and it also required an enormous amount of advertising.
That MCI saw eye-to-eye with the agency was no surprise. Partner Messner had first worked on the MCI account at Ally & Gargano in the late ’70s, establishing MCI’s reputation as the rebellious upstart. ‘The question was, could we get people to switch long-distance phone companies when they didn’t care about the category? Somehow we had to get them to believe that the AT&T monopoly wasn’t good for them.’ A&G’s first effort was simple and to the point, assuring consumers they hadn’t been talking too much, just paying too much. A second campaign sent up AT&T’s ‘Reach Out and Touch Someone’ by adding, ‘Just do it for 50% less.’ Phone response to both, measured via a direct response number, was so incredible, says Messner, the spots remained on air for two years. The novelty of competing phone companies also caught the media’s attention. Talk shows and late-night hosts lapped it up.
AT&T, on the other hand, preferred to ignore the scrappy, cantankerous competition. But by 1985 it began to strike back. The company’s most famous offensive was 1989’s ‘Put it in writing,’ which implied that most of MCI’s claims were false. And when the MCI account came up for grabs following management changes in 1990 (it had left A&G in ’86), MVBMS, says Messner, had the right approach at the right time.
Why? In 1986, ex-A&G creatives Messner, Berger and Vetere teamed with account man Walter Carey from Leber Katz to set up shop. Their sole account was for Andy O’Rourke, New York’s Republican gubernatorial candidate. The partners’ opening gambit lampooned Governor Cuomo’s refusal to debate O’Rourke by staging a press conference featuring a cardboard cutout of Cuomo.
Although that particular sortie failed, their involvement in politics continued. Messner, Berger and Vetere were all part of the ad hoc Tuesday Team that helped re-elect President Reagan, as well as the team that put Bush in the White House. Those campaigns taught them to produce ads quickly and cheaply in-house. ‘It definitely gave us an advantage,’ says Vetere. ‘There’s no limit to what you can do in terms of controlling costs and refining and devising ideas.’
From the beginning, the idea of transferring those talents to attack AT&T seemed appropriate. ‘AT&T had counterattacked us by saying the savings we offered were insubstantial,’ says Vetere. ‘We had to counterattack back.’ The negative ads came fast and furious from both sides. Earlier this year, MCI took direct aim at AT&T’s long-running ‘We want you back’ effort, featuring consumers irritated by a slew of ‘come back’ ads from an unnamed company, obviously AT&T. ‘We had to show price comparisons with AT&T, and there was no other way to do it,’ says Messner. ‘It also helped define the company.’
MCI really hit stride when it introduced its Friends & Family promotion in mid-1990, which promised 20% savings on long-distance calls to customers’ most frequently dialed numbers. The campaign kicked off with a variety of approaches, themes and celebrities. When the agency began using real, satisfied customers, the scheme proved so popular, the agency expanded to include MCI employees as well. ‘We found MCI employees to be so incredibly upbeat and positive about the company,’ says Vetere, ‘they helped paint a picture of what it was like and helped put a face on the company.’
‘Using real employees showed why MCI is the best company to be with,’ contends MCI’s Dunlap. ‘Their enthusiasm and infectiousness has been very powerful in shaping the marketplace perception of MCI. It showed that our people were friendly, reliable and trustworthy.’
One typical spot features some 800 operators at MCI’s huge telecommunications center in Phoenix celebrating the 10-millionth Friends & Family customer; in another, employees sporting Santa hats and fake snow celebrate a Christmas promotion. Filled with emoting consumers and gleeful employees exchanging high fives and tossing confetti, many of the spots verge on the downright hokey and are unlikely to move the masses at Cannes. But none of that seems to matter, since, according to Vetere, this program has been one of the most successful in the history of telecommunications.
AT&T is fighting back hard with Ayer’s $30-million network TV and print campaign to launch its own promotions. It’s seeing mixed success. The extensive ‘i’ plan, for example, was aimed at winning back customers MCI had lured away, but it proved so obscure the company finally abandoned it. To demonstrate its grasp of the future and command of technology, AT&T also launched a corporate campaign aimed at the 18-34 market. Titled ‘You will,’ the spots tout numerous soon-to-be-available high-tech services and products. There’s no doubt AT&T intends to keep attacking on all fronts. It recently asked all of its five major agencies to come up with new creative concepts for its consumer advertising. And last week, AT&T’s new president of consumer business, Joe Nacchio, indicated he would respond much more aggressively to MCI.
Sprint, meanwhile, has sat coolly on the fence with classy spokesperson Candice Bergen and its own savings plan, The Most. The No. 3 contender did join the fray in its own way earlier this year. ‘How come AT&T and MCI keep saying those nasty things about each other?’ Sprint asked in newspaper ads, breezily answering, ‘Who cares? . . . Life’s too short to waste bickering with the competition.’
At this point, both MCI and the agency are also keen to ease off on the attack advertising. ‘You can’t let the competition beat up on you forever because people start to believe it,’ says Vetere. ‘But over the years MCI’s become more confident to stand on its own two feet.’ Similarly, Dunlap says, ‘We have enough good services and products that we don’t have to. We consider ourselves the market leader when it comes to new products, and advertising is how most people recognize us. It’s all they see.’
One major stumbling block remains, however. Consumers care as much about long-distance phone companies as they care about phone buttons. ‘It’s very difficult,’ concedes Vetere. ‘Many people are cynical, and the level of interest is minimal.’ Even so, there are encouraging factors: ‘It’s fair to say that all these different elements lead up to a positive general perception, and we may be able to influence people momentarily,’ he says.
So what exactly has MVBMS done for MCI? ‘We wouldn’t claim we’ve done any one thing,’ says the ever-cautious Vetere. ‘The things we seem to accomplish, we have to accomplish again, every month. In the last two years it’s been a steady uphill climb, there’s been fewer customers lost. AT&T has more money, more agencies and more visibility. We’ve upped the ante. It’s a major tactical fight on all levels, and there’s still an enormous range of opportunities to be developed. We’ve never been in a bigger ad battle. The demands are incredible, every minute of the day.’
As for what MCI’s done for MVBMS, the answer’s more obvious. ‘When we started the agency, we weren’t looking to be a creative boutique,’ says Messner. ‘We wanted to be a large, significant agency doing consequential advertising, and it was MCI that gave us that fulfillment.’
In the future, technological opportunities seem infinite. AT&T’s recent purchase of McCaw Cellular is just a hint of what’s likely to come. Whatever happens, the MCI and MVBMS team plans to do exactly what they’ve always done. As the ever-ebullient Messner puts it, ‘We’re prepared for anything – except good taste.’
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)