JC Penney Hires Y&R to Help With Turnaround

Can WPP-Owned Agency Make Retailer Appealing to Consumers Again?

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After a quick round of meetings with a handful of agencies, Sergio Zyman -- the marketing consultant and former Coca-Cola exec brought on by the embattled retailer to help it chart a new course -- has hired Y&R as its new creative agency of record.

"We're excited to partner with Y&R on the implementation of our consumer marketing campaigns this year," the company said in a statement. "Y&R is a highly regarded agency, and their strategic and creative contributions will help build JC Penney brand loyalty, as well as connect with customers during key shopping periods."

By bringing on a big Madison Avenue agency, Mr. Zyman's approach is decidedly counter to that of the former management, which dropped Publicis Groupe's Saatchi & Saatchi to work with smaller independent shops, including Mother, New York, and Minneapolis-based Peterson Milla Hooks. JCP declined to comment on whether it would still work those agencies.

Industry executives say that over the past few weeks, several big agencies were holding conversations -- or attempting to -- with JC Penney, eager to help with the turnaround. So how did Y&R get tapped?

It might have something to do with the network's global chief creative officer Tony Granger, who prior to Y&R worked at Saatchi's New York office, handling work for JC Penney among other clients. He departed in 2007 to take on a bigger global job at Y&R.

"I was very close to JC Penney, and was part of a team that was focused on making JC Penney a 'lovemark' with Middle America," Mr. Granger told Ad Age back then, after he made the jump, referring to his former boss Kevin Roberts' book, "Lovemarks."

Under Mr. Granger's watch, the brand ditched its stodgy advertising for sophisticated, cinematic spots shot by top directors. Among them were the fantastic "Life Imitates Art," which made its debut during the Oscars and re-enacted scenes from classic Hollywood films, directed by MJZ's Dante Ariola, and the heartwarming "Aviator," about a little girl with big dreams, shot by MJZ's Fredrik Bond.

There was a bit of controversy around Mr. Granger's relationship with that account in 2008, when a racy ad for JC Penney won at the Cannes festival, and the client demanded it be removed from circulation because, JC Penney alleged, it implied the retailer condoned teen sex. The credits listed Mr. Granger's name among others, even though he was already at Y&R. He said he had nothing to do with it, and Saatchi blamed the production company Epoch for producing and circulating the ad.

It's a new day now, with a new management team. After 17 months of retail experimentation at JC Penney, CEO Ron Johnson is out and will be replaced by JC Penney's former CEO Mike Ullman. There's no word on a permanent CMO. But there's a lot of work to be done, and for Y&R that means rolling up their sleeves immediately.

Said CEO David Sable: "It is a proud brand that has enormous equity with consumers. Sergio Zyman and his team are working on a solid plan for success and we are honored to be part of it. Tony Granger and I and the whole team look forward to helping JC Penney as they write a great new chapter."

Contributing: Ann-Christine Diaz

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