Delta weighs $100 million shoot-out for media buying

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Delta loves a review, and it shows.

Having just handed creative for its $100 million global ad account to Leo Burnett Co., Chicago, with media planning going to sibling Starcom Worldwide, Delta Air Lines now is mulling a move of its media buying.

Some observers were surprised when the carrier said last month that incumbent Zenith Media Services, New York, would retain buying, given the choice of Starcom for planning. But it now appears Delta is considering a shoot-out between Zenith, Starcom and a third shop, Western Initiative Media Worldwide.

WESTERN NEEDS A BIG VICTORY

Western, which has been racked with controversy of late and needing a major account win, may well be the favorite.

Western has a huge operation in Atlanta, the airline's headquarters. The media shop's 150-person office there is its second-largest in the U.S., after its own West Hollywood, Calif., headquarters. The office handles buying for BellSouth Corp. and Home Depot.

"With the huge infrastructure Western already has in Altanta, I think they automatically become the favorites" to win the account, said one media-shop executive familiar with the situation.

Furthermore, this executive said, the nature of the account, with its emphasis on the labor-intensive chores of newspaper and local TV buying, also could favor Western, an expert in these areas.

POTENTIAL CONTENDERS MUM

None of the three media shops would comment on the Delta situation. Neither Martin White, Delta's VP-consumer marketing, nor Timothy Mapes, director-worldwide marketing communications, returned phone calls.

"If we win this, at this particular time, it would be huge," said one Western U.S. executive. "After this Kassan thing, and with the uncertainty about Dennis, morale is pretty low."

The first reference is to Michael Kassan, Western's former president. In August, he filed legal actions against parent Interpublic Group of Cos. for breach of contract and defamation of character. The two settled out of court. The second reference is to Western founder and U.S. CEO Dennis Holt. His contract is up soon, and he has not announced whether he will stay.

Mr. Holt, a dynamic and popular figure in West Coast ad circles, is said by another Western executive to have a "strained" relationship with the parent company. There has been continual talk Interpublic will require most of Western's operations to move to New York--a move Mr. Holt has said won't happen as long as he's with the company.

There's also talk that even if Mr. Holt stays, Interpublic will hire a CEO below him and above Chief Operating Officer Michael Lotito.

'HOPEFUL' HOLT WILL STAY

Larry Lamattina, Western's worldwide chairman-CEO, said: "Dennis has that title now, and we are hopeful that Dennis stays with us. Those discussions with him are ongoing. So we have no plans . . . until we conclude those talks."

The Delta agency changes are driven by Mr. White, who joined Delta last year from US Airways. He caused a stir last spring when he openly criticized the carrier's "Top of the world" branding campaign developed by previous agency Saatchi & Saatchi, New York (co-owner of Zenith Media).

Copyright October 1999, Crain Communications Inc.

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