Sun dumps Lowe Lintas, pits Martin against JWT

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Sun Microsystems, frustrated by a long simmering conflict at Lowe Lintas & Partners Worldwide, has parted from the agency and appears poised to move its $100 million account to J. Walter Thompson USA, New York.

Lowe Group, however, will have one last chance to keep the business in the Interpublic Group of Cos. fold. Lowe Group's Martin Agency will pitch this week for Sun. The Martin Agency, Richmond, Va., will be pitted against former Sun shop J. Walter Thompson USA, New York, which is partnering with the marketer's current interactive agency, Tonic 360, San Francisco, for the pitch.

Lowe Lintas and JWT executives declined comment.

OPPOSITE COASTS

Lowe Lintas' New York office has handled advertising for Dell Computer Corp.'s home and small business units since Ammirati Puris Lintas, New York, which held the business, merged with Lowe & Partners/SMS late last year. Sun, meanwhile, was handled by Lowe Lintas, San Francisco. Although agency executives downplayed the conflict publicly, behind the scenes they worked on several undisclosed options to resolve it.

Matters, however, came to a head in August. Dell took direct aim at Sun in a print ad with the headline "It's time to focus less on The Dot and more on The Commerce," a dig at Sun's theme, "We're the dot in .com." Lowe Lintas, New York, created the Dell ad -- which targeted the work of Lowe, San Francisco.

"The Dell business at Lowe Lintas is a conflict, clearly, and early in August, an ad was run by Dell that took on Sun and the Sun brand quite aggressively," said Karen Becker, worldwide advertising director at Sun. "We decided that the conflict was too great."

Although Lowe maintained there was only minor overlap in the server segment, Dell increasingly competes with the $12.4 billion Sun in hardware, software and services supporting Internet commerce. "We were working through the process of resolving the conflict, but with the ad breaking, it was clear that we couldn't," she said.

Lowe Lintas, San Francisco, suggested Martin pitch to save the business, Ms. Becker said. Martin this year opened its San Francisco office to handle Charles Schwab & Co.

JEFFREY A KEY PLAYER

Tonic 360 will pitch ideas for an offline campaign in partnership with JWT, Ms. Becker said. Now president of JWT, New York, Bob Jeffrey was instrumental in Lowe & Partners/SMS' win of Sun in 1997 -- from JWT, San Francisco -- when he was general manager of Lowe's San Francisco office.

Mr. Jeffrey, who maintained contact with key Sun executives during his JWT tenure, did not return calls by press time.

JWT's West Coast outpost has languished recently, taking a major hit with the loss of its cornerstone account, Sprint Corp. The agency has been looking to buy another shop in order to fortify its San Francisco presence.

Sun's splashy movie trailer brand campaign, well-liked by Sun executives, was developed in Lowe Lintas' San Francisco office headed by Buzz Sawyer, general manager, and Vince Engel, exec VP-creative director. The Sun loss would be a major blow to the shop.

Ms. Becker said the presentations do not constitute a formal review. "We needed to come up with an alternative situation for our business and we agreed to talk with the Martin Agency at Lowe's suggestion to see if perhaps we couldn't transition the business to Martin Agency through a pitch." Ms. Becker said the goal is to move forward with "as little disruption as possible."

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