Dell Computer fires JWT; BBDO gets the business

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Dell Computer Corp. is moving its $100 million-plus brand account to BBDO Worldwide, firing J. Walter Thompson USA less than nine months after hiring the agency to develop Dell's first global brand campaign.

The move comes amid rumblings Dell will talk to other agencies about its Web work now at Grey Interactive, New York.

A person close to the situation said BBDO, New York, and its Omnicom Group affiliates "at the moment" are not picking up the Web work or the $60 million U.S. product account handled by Goldberg Moser O'Neill, San Francisco.

Dell and BBDO executives declined to comment, though an insider at press time said Dell was working on the formal announcement.

Goldberg Exec VP Mike Massaro, who has run the account since 1988, said: "There has been no change in our assignment whatsoever as far as I know."

Grey referred calls to Dell.

3 MONTHS INTO CAMPAIGN

JWT's Dell slogan was "Be direct." Dell did just that, axing JWT only three months after its U.S. TV and print campaign debuted and weeks before the work's planned start-up abroad.

The formal move was not a surprise, given JWT's early difficulties on the account and BBDO's aggressive play to snare the business. JWT's formal firing came Sept. 10 in an afternoon phone call to Bob Jeffrey, president of JWT's New York office. Dell was meeting in BBDO's New York office when the call went out.

In a statement, JWT said the news was "very disappointing," coming after only nine months. The agency acknowledged that it "did not see eye to eye on branding issues" with Dell.

TIES THROUGH BOARD

JWT had ties to the top of Dell via board member Michael Miles, a former chairman-CEO of Philip Morris Cos. and its Kraft Foods unit before that. It was he who championed the need to do a brand campaign. JWT's Chicago office, a Kraft agency, worked with the New York office on Dell.

The booming PC direct marketer, long reliant on product ads, is a latecomer to tech brand advertising. One insider earlier this year said Dell was acting almost on faith that brand spending would have a long-term payoff.

JWT insiders privately acknowledge they had difficulty getting creative approved from the start, saying Dell VP-Corporate Branding Scott Helbing wanted to bring in his own agency.

Mr. Helbing distributed a memo in March expressing concern about JWT's initial tagline and brand positioning; the tagline was later changed.

Mr. Helbing was with PepsiCo spinoff Tricon Global Restaurants and BBDO client Pizza Hut for a year before joining Dell late last year. One of Mr. Helbing's lieutenants, Joe Malvezzi, also is a former Pizza Hut executive.

PC ACCOUNTS MOVE SANS REVIEWS

Dell's sudden hiring of BBDO continues a trend in which computer accounts are moving without review: IBM Corp., Compaq Computer Corp., Gateway and Micron Electronics all picked their current agencies without formal review.

Ironically, most of these companies went through prolonged reviews or agency shootouts barely a year before booting the winners. Such is the case with Compaq, Dell, Gateway and IBM.

After BBDO resigned last year, Apple Computer truncated its review and rehired TBWA Chiat/Day, Venice, Calif.

BBDO knows the category, having handled Apple for 11 years. With Apple, BBDO pioneered the concept of harnessing a network to handle a global computer account, something many other tech marketers have copied in recent years.

Dell, renowned for the efficiency of its direct-marketing machine, surpassed Compaq last quarter as the nation's biggest PC marketer.

DELL VS. COMPAQ

Compaq awarded its account to BBDO sibling DDB Needham Worldwide, New York, in June, and it has all guns pointed at Dell to take back U.S. leadership and retain status as the world's largest PC marketer.

Omnicom Group now faces the task of carefully managing two sides of the PC industry's biggest battle.

Contributing: Alice Z. Cuneo, Carol Krol, Mercedes M. Cardona, Laura Petrecca.

Copyright September 1998, Crain Communications Inc.

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