Rebuilding Trust: JWT deepens bench on its $118 mil Merrill Lynch acc't

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J. Walter Thompson has brought in new players and developed new spots in an effort to reinforce its service to Merrill Lynch & Co.

The WPP Group agency hired two top-level executives to work on the financial company's account. The company recently began to air new ads, Merrill's first since it faced allegations that its analysts falsely touted stocks to help out its investment banking operations.

Alda Abbracciamento, former exec VP at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Martin Agency, joined as exec VP to lead the U.S. Private Client portion of the Merrill account. U.S. Private Client is the Merrill unit that handles services for wealthy individuals and small institutions; the corporate portion of the account is handled at the agency by Dan O'Donnell, global business director. Ms. Abbracciamento replaces Patrick Corry, who became director of private wealth management marketing at Merrill.

Her experience with Charles Schwab & Co. and its U.S. Trust unit while at the Martin Agency is a particular plus, said Bob Jeffrey, JWT's president, North America.

Her appointment follows last month's naming of Rob Scalea as chief strategy officer. Mr. Scalea-formerly managing director-strategic consulting at Interpublic's Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos, Boston-will start a business-consulting practice within JWT, but will initially focus on strategic consulting for clients including Merrill.

key client

Merrill is a key client for JWT; it was the win that broke the agency's late `90s losing streak and marked the start of improved results for the shop. Merrill spent $118 million in 2001, according to Taylor Nelson Sofres' CMR.

The hires are part of an overall boost of senior management ranks at JWT's New York flagship, Mr. Jeffrey said.

"It's really creating more bench strength," he said, adding both executives will work with other clients besides Merrill.

"Right now, consumers ... are skeptical, not only of Wall Street, but of business at large," Ms. Abbracciamento said. But it's too soon to tell how marketing messages will change in the aftermath, she said.

Wall Street-and Merrill in particular-recently faced allegations of analyst bias and manipulating stock recommendations. Last month, the firm settled charges brought by the New York State attorney general by paying a $100 million fine and changing analysts' compensation, without admitting liability.

Other Wall Street firms have managed successfully through similar investigations before, said Jeff Parkhurst, director-brand valuations, U.S. and Americas at brand consultant Interbrand, New York. The firms need to focus on enforcing ethics internally while maintaining their image with customers, he said.

Advertising alone won't rebuild their reputation, but "it certainly wouldn't hurt," he said.

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