Unilever delays $515 million U.S. media review

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Unilever has put the brakes on a $515 million U.S. media review until after the upfront marketplace.

In the meantime, the package-goods giant has parked its $53 million spot TV account at local TV-buying powerhouse Western Initiative Media Worldwide, West Hollywood, Calif.

Prior to the assignment, local TV buying had been handled by Unilever's brand agencies.

National TV buying has been at Botway Group, New York, which was recently acquired by Western. Until the review is resumed, Western will handle all of Unilever's U.S. TV buying.

Besides Western/Botway, a unit of Interpublic Group of Cos., the other participants in the review are WPP Group's MindShare and Omnicom Group's Creative Media, New York.

`NEED FURTHER TIME'

The delay was first reported by the AdAge.com Web site last week, and was confirmed in a statement by Brad Simmons, VP-director of media services, Unilever U.S. "Based on agency responses to the first stage of our review, it's clear Unilever and its agencies will need further time to address important issues that have been raised," he said.

The review, which started in October, was unusual from the start. The first stage, for example, solicited participants' opinions as to the parameters of the review.

Option No. 1, the request for proposals said, was that "in addition to broadcast and cable, the buying assignment would be expanded to include consolidation of spot TV buying. This enhanced buying specialist would also assume responsibility for tactical planning, while strategic planning would remain the responsibility of the creative agency."

The second option was a consolidation of media planning and buying, defined as "a total Unilever media agency of record serving all of Unilever's media needs," the RFP said.

One executive close to the situation said a complication that helped cause the delay came when both Chris Jones, CEO of roster agency J. Walter Thompson Co., and Shelly Lazarus, chairman-CEO of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, sent Unilever separate letters with strong views about the strategic planning issue. The U.S. media units of JWT and O&M comprise MindShare.

BUYERS MAY HAVE PUSHED DELAY

A delay in the review will give MindShare time to get established in the U.S. while also giving Western a chance to fully integrate Botway.

One media buying executive not involved in the review speculated that Botway, Western and Interpublic were pushing for the delay.

"Botway could have said, `Look you needed to go a bigger place. Now you have the best of both worlds. You still have my experience and expertise. I've given you what you want. What do you have to go through the review for? Give us an opportunity to go through the next upfront and, if you are not happy, then you can go through it," the media executive said.

He added, "I'm sure Interpublic worked hard to make this go away. They had bought Botway and, had Botway lost the business, it would be another negative situation for them."

The executive was referring to events this past summer, when Michael Kassan, Western's former U.S. president, and Interpublic were engaged in a bitter labor dispute and legal action that was subsequently settled.

Contributing: Beth Snyder, Wayne Friedman, Jack Neff

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