An Uncivil War

Ulysses got home faster than Pfizer settled its media review. At least the winner in the drug giant’s seven-month search, Pfizer incumbent Carat, shared the Greek hero’s happy ending: It fought off all suitors (MindShare and Creative Media), and kept the girl.

Living happily ever after, however, may be another story.

First, the good news.

Carat had been considered big but not an A-list player until this win, which puts it in the top 10. It not only adds a hefty $500 million or so to the media shop’s U.S. billings, it has the media-agency community applauding the victory.

“This win firmly justifies the investments Carat has made in [its three years in] North America,” one media agency leader believes. Sources inside Carat agree, calling the Pfizer success a “validation.”

Other independent media shops see Carat’s victory as symbolic—a clear message that the independents can compete with the global powers and win. That’s a powerful signal after a year in which the unbundled beat the unaffiliated like bongo drums.

“It’s great for me,” declares a top executive at one independent. “Big billings are out of the MindShare, OMD and Interpublic club. It’s good to see a major client go to a true independent.”

Fair enough. Troy has burned to the ground. Ithaca has got its king back. But it isn’t quite Miller Time for the conquering hero.

Here’s the bad news: Carat’s got a Herculean task ahead of it.

To begin, Pfizer has a split personality. The client’s team was torn in two from the moment the review began last century.

Pfizer launched the search after acquiring Warner-Lambert, and the Warner people adored their incumbent, MindShare, every bit as much as Pfizer loved its partner, Carat. Each side was so adamant about the merits of its respective agency that the review teams’ hostility resembled an armed camp.

That created an uncivil war, according to just about anybody who knew anything about this review, which kept the contenders dangling in limbo for more than half a year.

Just as troubling, Pfizer’s review process was akin to singing arias while being stretched on a rack. (On at least one occasion, review participants were startled to discover that the Pfizer and Warner people hadn’t even met each other until that moment!)

In addition, there were also constant demands for more information, including packages totaling dozens of pages. And, not surprisingly, there were vain attempts to get somebody—anybody—to tell the contenders what was happening.

Still, Carat has kicked the suitors out of the palace, and it has reason to celebrate.

But the legacy of the Pfizer review, no matter how well Carat does, may be a cautionary tale for advertisers pondering their own media consolidations. It’s a blueprint for how not to conduct a media review. And as sure as a cyclops needs eye drops, there will be plenty more of them.