Virgin Mobile Mulls 3 Finalists

Pro Media has placed among the finalists in a review for Vir gin Mobile’s $50 million media buying account follows in creased competition from cell-phone companies targeting the youth market.

In addition to the Natick, Mass.-based independent, making presentations late last week and early this week to the San Francisco-based client are Palisades Media Group in Santa Monica, Calif., and Omnicom’s PHD, San Francisco and New York. A decision is expected this week, sources said.

Pro Media CEO Nancy Ryan is leading her shop’s pitch, and is looking to maintain momentum after adding broadcast buying for Liberty Mutual (see related story below).

Winning Virgin would almost certainly lead to several new hires at the shop, which has struggled since losing the media portion of the $50 million Staples account as the year began. In the past year, Pro Media’s billings fell 30 percent to $200 million.

Virgin Mobile is looking for a shop to take a highly creative ap proach to buying, and expects the winner to explore “alternatives” to prime-time buys, such as niche cable programs and magazines that appeal to the technologically savvy 18-34-year-old crowd, sources said.

“It’s a lifestyle product,” one source said. “You have to advertise in a subliminal way. You don’t buy GRPs on a show like Friends be cause it does well, but because it’s associated with people who are hip.”

The client, which launched service in June through a partnership with Sprint, worked with PMG on its fourth-quarter buy. Pro Media works with parent Virgin Group’s travel-agency arm, Virgin Vacations, while PHD partners with Leagas. Virgin also held discussions with the in-house ad unit of retail chain Best Buy about handling its buying, but those talks have ceased, sources said.

Representatives for the client, the agencies and Best Buy either did not return calls or declined comment.

The search is being coordinated by Megan Brueger, media director at Virgin’s creative and media-planning shop, Leagas Delaney, and Brenda Ross on the client side.

Virgin’s approach to the review mirrors that of competitor Boost Mobile, which relied on its creative and media-planning agency, Team One in El Segundo, Calif., to lead its search. Two weeks ago, Boost hired Carat in Los Angeles to handle its $10-20 million buying account. In addition to Boost, Virgin’s competitors include T-Mobile and Cingular Wireless, which earlier this year introduced a youth-targeted Web portal.