A Long, Hot Summer For New Business

new york What happened to the dog days of summer, the time when nothing big happened in August and agency people took long overdue two-week vacations and spent Fridays on the golf course?

Those sticking to their leisure plans this month do so at the risk of being interrupted by e-mails, voicemails and cell-phone calls, because an increasing number of clients are not taking a summer break.

“No one I know can remember an August like this,” said Mike Duda, director of business development at Interpublic Group’s Deutsch, who said it is the busiest August he has seen in 10 years.

In July and August alone, at least 20 marketers have put more than $2 billion in billings into review, and the summer isn’t over yet. That’s 5 percent more than in the same period a year earlier and a whopping 82 percent more than 2003’s snapshot of $1.1 billion, according to Adweek estimates.

As usual, part of the activity can be traced back to new management at the client. CMO turnover seems especially high this August, with the installation of Ken Kunze at Heineken USA, Michelle Cervantez at Hyundai and Don Callahan at Morgan Stanley, which launched a review of its $80 million creative account within days of his arrival.

Marketing-department turnover is nothing new, and not every change in the ranks triggers a review. Still, the churn in itself creates work for opportunistic new-business execs and search consultants looking for the next “Glengarry lead.”

A big factor in this summer’s fever pitch is Bank of America, which is conducting a fast-paced review for its $600 million account that it meant to be over by the end of August. “I had to change my vacation plans for BofA meetings,” said one executive. The review pits incumbent IPG against WPP Group and Omnicom Group. The lure of $65 million in revenue had holding-company CEOs hustling to corral resources from scores of agencies in a matter of weeks.

The BofA blockbuster, and continued talk that IPG’s SEC investigation into accounting issues are getting clients jittery, have rivals circling—and targeting other clients as well. They “smell blood in the water,” so “there is contact being made quietly on a lot of fronts this summer,” said one executive who postponed his summer plans.

The new CMOs and the BofA review aren’t the only factors. Consultants and agency execs also point to the market forces in a newly vigorous economy, reviews that have stretched past the springtime and, sad to say, the tethering influence of technology.

“The economy was so bad for a while that people just hunkered down,” said Deutsch’s Duda, whose shop is a finalist in Lowe’s $315 million review and is also pursuing BMW’s $80 million national account. “The activity we’re seeing now is what people expected 18 months ago, when we were coming off the worst three-year period in advertising in 60 years. And what I’m hearing more and more from clients this summer is that they’re doing now what they wanted to do two years ago.”

Added Hasan Ramusevic, the consultant managing the Lowe’s review: “Marketers are essentially trying to make up lost ground and need immediate results. With the economy no longer an issue for most marketers, those who are still having soft sales need to examine all the variables, including advertising and strategic partnerships. Losing is not an option for 2006.”

Also, several reviews that began earlier in the year have picked up recently, including BMW, the U.S. Navy, Lowe’s, British Airways and Unilever’s Omo. Contenders in the Lowe’s, BA and Omo contests are preparing for final pitches that are only a few weeks away.

And yes, the proliferation of cell phones, PDAs and ever more powerful laptops means that “I’m not in the office today” is no longer an excuse for not filling out an RFP, answering an e-mail or returning a voice mail. “The dog days of summer have been supplanted [because of technology]. They don’t exist anymore,” said Matt Weiss, director of new business at IPG’s McCann Erickson in New York. “You can get ideas anytime and share them anytime because of technology.”

Weiss said he’s checked e-mail and taken business calls while standing on skis at 14,000 feet, though his wife thought he was crazy.

“It has become unacceptable to say, ‘I’m not here today,’ ” said Robin Koval, chief marketing officer and general manager of Publicis Groupe’s The Kaplan Thaler Group.

While new-business chiefs feel harried this summer, the memory of the recession is fresh enough that they’re not complaining too much. “The alternative is worse,” said Koval. “Better to be here in the office.” But don’t confuse busyness with happiness. “Call the clients next week, they’ll all be on vacation. Call the agencies, they’ll all be there,” said one new-business executive who expected to work through the weekend to finish three RFPs. “Because come Labor Day, [clients] want all the programs in place.”