ExxonMobil Has Review Finalists on Edge

Huge $50 million review has McCann and DDB on tenterhooks while BBDO hopes to play spoiler as 'Switzerland' option

ExxonMobil’s global review of its creative and media business, which is worth $50 million in revenue across both assignments, was touted as a massive consolidation play. Now, it’s pushing the finalists to the brink.

On the creative side, the oil and gas behemoth may trim its roster of agencies from three to two, an about-face from the initial plan of parking its account at a single shop.

What’s driving the directional shift at one of the world’s largest corporations is the reluctance of ExxonMobil’s two main divisions—fuels and lubricants/chemicals—to part with their existing agencies (DDB and McCann, respectively).

Earlier in the review, a divisional executive told a competing agency point-blank that he liked his existing shop and saw no reason to change. That partly explains why both DDB and McCann survived an earlier cut, and an agency that handles corporate image advertising, Euro RSCG, did not.

Of course, divisions pushing back on a corporate move to consolidate is not extraordinary in a multi-layered, $383 billion company built by acquisitions. Whether the units ultimately get their way, however, is debatable.

Some participants see room for compromise, while others assert that whatever corporate wants, corporate will get. If so, that could be good news for BBDO.

Rather than bundle its creative account at DDB or McCann and therefore risk the ire of the division that “loses” its agency, ExxonMobil could turn to the sole shop in the bunch presently without skin in ExxonMobil’s game. Under that scenario, BBDO represents “Switzerland,” or a more neutral choice for all the company’s constituents. From a parent’s perspective, it would be akin to making both kids unhappy than to favor one side.

Regardless of the outcome, the grand prize is huge—and for a prize that big, the participants are willing to wait it out. And wait they have.

Planning for the review began in early October 2010. Two months later, ExxonMobil hired Joanne Davis Consulting to manage the process. Requests for proposals circulated in early 2011, and after meeting a broader group of creative contenders that included Euro RSCG, Publicis, and The Martin Agency, the company narrowed the field to the final three, who made presentations at ExxonMobil’s headquarters in Texas. That was two months ago.

Meanwhile, ExxonMobil has separately evaluated its three media agencies: Universal McCann, MPG, and OMD. They face no outsider opposition. During the summer, the media contest was further along than the creative process, but now both competitions are neck and neck. Global media spending exceeds $300 million a year. In recent weeks, ExxonMobil executives have asked the contenders for more information on fee proposals—a sure sign that the end is near. The latest decision date is the end of October.

Patience is not the only thing that takes its toll in a review of this size. Pitches involving multiple offices and dozens of executives cost a significant amount of money, even for global agencies  like McCann. The bill can run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Still, it’s worth it for the brass ring. As one agency executive explains, “It’s the biggest company in the world. That’s life, you know?”

Of course, with stakes this high and with so much money on the line, many participants are on edge. “Anything could happen,” says another senior agency executive involved with the review, “and that’s my nightmare.”