Target Splits With Lead Agency Wieden & Kennedy

Surprise Parting Leaves Retailer's Agency Approach Up in the Air

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The first few days of 2012 have already brought a surprising split: Target and its longtime agency Wieden & Kennedy are going their separate ways.

"Target is proud of what we accomplished with the Wieden & Kennedy team during our six-year partnership," said Shawn Gensch, VP-marketing and head of partner management at Target , in a statement to Ad Age . "Looking forward, we are focused on continuing to identify fresh and innovative ways to tell Target 's brand story, and will leverage both our internal expertise and our strong roster of agency partners to help accomplish our marketing goals in 2012 and beyond."

"It is never easy to part ways with a client," said Tom Blessington, managing director in Portland and a partner at the agency, said in the statement. "We are proud of our six-year history with Target and wish them the best."

Susan Hoffman, executive creative director at W&K Portland, added: "It was a great creative opportunity to work with such an iconic brand. We love the pace and the dynamics of working in the retail space."

The split is sudden and surprising considering the success the partnership had. In what was viewed as the ultimate vote of confidence in the shop, in 2009, Wieden -- which had been on Target 's roster for years -- was given a special distinction, named the retailer's lead agency without a review. The move was made at the direction of former Target marketer Michael Francis.

It was time to bring in a "more thoughtful quarterback," Mr. Francis told Ad Age in 2010. Target felt it needed a partner to help align its messaging and approach across channels, he said. Prior to that , Target had relied on a roster of boutique shops such as Peterson Milla Hooks, an approach that Mr. Francis appears to be utilizing in his new role at JC Penney, which just split with agency of record Saatchi & Saatchi.

Wieden executives declined to comment beyond prepared statements. But industry executives suggested the split stems from the departure of Mr. Francis, who defected to JC Penney Co.in October. Wieden worked closely with him, and in his wake he is said to have left much debate over the marketing direction of the company. In the absence of a CMO, newcomer Liz Elert -- VP-creative and an alum of retailers such as Gap and Victoria's Secret -- has been leading the charge, industry executives say. And Ms. Elert and Wieden are said to have butted heads.

"It's safe to say there's not a single factor we would point to," said Katie Boylan, a spokeswoman for Target . "At this point in time, we're focused on trying to innovate and tell the Target story in the most creative way possible."

It's not clear whether the retailer will be on the hunt for a new lead agency or whether it will return to more of a multi-agency roster strategy. Ms. Boylan said Target would be relying on a mix of internal and external talent. The retailer has worked with a variety of agencies in the past, including Haworth, Olson, AKQA , Huge and Mother . Ms. Boylan declined to name specific agencies Target currently works with.

"What's important is making sure we have the right mix of talent. We have a wealth of resources right here at Target ," Ms. Boylan said. "But it's safe to say that the media landscape is evolving quickly. We're also making sure we have the right agencies for the right parts of our business."

Ms. Boylan declined to comment on the status of Target 's search for a new CMO. But, she added, the model will leave room for a new CMO to "make adjustments along the way."

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