How DDB Needham captured Compaq's $300 mil prize

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On the January day Compaq Computer Corp. announced its agreement to acquire Digital Equipment Corp., DDB Needham Worldwide went to war.

Digital's agency appeared to have little chance of staying on the roster of a company that seemed focused on building one brand, Compaq, through one agency--incumbent Ammirati Puris Lintas.

"From Compaq's perspective, we remain 100% committed to working with [Ammirati]," Compaq VP Andrew Salzman told Advertising Age a few days after the merger.

That didn't stop DDB Needham and feisty Chairman-CEO Keith Reinhard, and last week the agency beat the odds, walking away with the entire $300 million Compaq creative and media account.


How it got there is a chapter for the marketing playbooks. In early February, DDB Needham set up a third-floor war room in its Madison Avenue headquarters, plastering ads from Compaq and its rivals on the wall, stacking boxes filled with TV reels, pricing information, retail data, annual reports, product briefs and industry analyses on the floor.

An attack team headed by Steven Norcia, global account director, was formed. Security was tight, and code names were used: "The potato" was the campaign; "The Boss," Compaq President-CEO Eckhard Pfeiffer. Mr. Norcia, a college boxer, compared the team's desire to win to that of the underdog title character in "Rocky."

"I don't think [Ammirati] had a thought in their head that DDB would have a thing to do with this new company," Mr. Norcia said.

Meeting daily at 4 p.m., the team studied every issue, from competitive points of differentiation to Mr. Pfeiffer's personal life. While it scrutinized strategies and began producing a campaign, Mr. Norcia was trying to win an audience with Mr. Pfeiffer.


Digital Chairman Robert Palmer and Senior VP Bruce Claflin paved the way by presenting data to top Compaq management showing the effectiveness of DDB Needham's work for Digital. Messrs. Pfeiffer and Salzman finally met a little more than a month ago at a New York hotel to hear the pitch from a team of four led by Mr. Reinhard.

Mr. Pfeiffer's words as he left: "This is very impressive."

New York-based Ammirati still had a chance of keeping the account but couldn't pull it off. On June 2, Ammirati Chairman-CEO Martin Puris released a statement saying the agency and Compaq "mutually agreed" to part on creative. Executives did not return calls for further comment by press time.


DDB Needham's Compaq campaign is set to break June 12, the day after the merger is finalized. Mr. Norcia said the campaign will include a "very, very few changes" from the work presented at the agency's first audience with Compaq executives.

The push will start with an ad in The Wall Street Journal announcing the merger. A 12-page insert will follow in the Journal June 16, the opening of the PC Expo trade show, where Mr. Pfeiffer will lay out strategies in a keynote speech.

The finished version of a spec TV spot will follow, but the campaign will be based in print, as was DDB Needham's Digital work.

The Compaq campaign will be built around a branding idea and "iconography," using a unifying image, Mr. Salzman said. The highly visual ads are said to feature an "exploding" Compaq logo.


DDB Needham is pressing to get interactive work, now split between Ammirati and several agencies. Ammirati still has direct marketing, though DDB Needham's Omnicom sister shop Rapp Collins Worldwide, New York, could make a play. DDB Needham also has direct capabilities through its Chicago-based Beyond DDB unit.

DDB Needham's Los Angeles office handles Epson America, whose printers compete with Compaq's new printer line. The agency also handles Microsoft Corp. and Sony Corp. in some global markets, but DDB Needham doesn't see any conflicts.

Compaq's shift is the biggest, and most unexpected, tech move since IBM Corp. overnight consolidated its then $500 million account at Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, New York, in 1994.

It's also reminiscent of Apple Computer acting CEO Steve Jobs last year aborting a review and rehiring former Apple shop TBWA Chiat/Day, Venice, Calif.

In each case, a strong-willed CEO ignored the rules about methodical reviews and just hired an agency.


In the minds of some tech industry observers, Digital was a troubled company with great advertising, while Compaq was a great com- pany with troubled advertising.

DDB Needham's instantly recognizable Digital ads--with headlines in the style of Digital's bricklike logo--caught customers' and rivals' attention; IBM Chairman Louis V. Gerstner Jr. once singled out a Digital ad as an example of good work.

In contrast, Ammirati's recent Compaq work has left many tech marketing executives scratching their heads over strategy and execution.

"[There was] no sense of soul or mission or differentiation, just red headlines," said a senior agency executive on a rival account. "Somehow, they got off track."

Contributing: Alice Z. Cuneo, Scott Donaton

Copyright June 1998, Crain Communications Inc.

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