The business-with spending estimated at $200 million to $300 million-had been split among dozens of shops. But the company now plans to divvy up the spoils among two or three agencies, though it won't provide a precise number.
Also in the running are outsiders FCB Direct and Worldwide 1 on 1, both New York.
FCB Direct sister agency FCB/Leber Katz Partners recently became lead shop on the long-distance ad account, while Worldwide 1 on 1, a joint venture of N W Ayer and Ross Roy Communications, has handled business from AT&T Consumer Products.
At the time of last week's announcement, Worldwide 1 on 1 was absent from the finalist list due to what AT&T later called an "inadvertent" oversight. Ayer last year lost its lead ad agency status on AT&T to Leber Katz.
Finalists said AT&T plans a briefing at its Basking Ridge, N.J., headquarters this week and will hear presentations about two weeks later. Those meetings are expected to focus on strategic thinking and database capabilities instead of creative work.
Sixty-one agencies now handle some part of AT&T's long-distance direct marketing account, though the scope of this review is limited to English-language work in the U.S.
"We want to have more of a strategic partnership with direct marketing agencies," said George Burnett, general manager of marketing communications for the Consumer Communications Services unit. "This is not a creative shoot-out. But there's no way any time an agency deals with strategic issues that they don't touch on creative."
One wrinkle is the potential conflict posed by regional Bell operating companies like Nynex Corp., now handled by O&M, Saatchi and Wunderman or the agencies' sibling units. Executives involved in the review said AT&T has ruled that accounts with regional Bells are conflicts. The executives said eventual winners must resign that business, given the shops' elevated "partnership" status and the encroaching competition that other phone-service providers now threaten.
But Mr. Burnett wouldn't confirm that demand, saying only that AT&T is "always assessing its policy" and hasn't changed its stance.