Final presentations will be made Oct. 8 before United Chairman-CEO Gerald Greenwald and senior managers. A decision is expected immediately thereafter.
The four invited back are incumbent Leo Burnett USA, Chicago; Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis and New York; TBWA Chiat/Day, New York; and Young & Rubicam, Chicago and New York. Only Ammirati Puris Lintas, New York, was cut.
"I thought we had achieved something" by making the cut, said a top executive at one of the finalists. "I'm less excited now that I know they only cut one."
United had said it intended to pick two to three finalists.
Though United has positioned the review as one of a series of evaluations of every process in the company, it appears to hinge on relationships. Burnett's United work is well-regarded by competitors, and United's business results, like those of most big airlines, have been strong this year.
Just weeks before the review was launched, John Ruhaak, United's longtime VP-marketing and promotion and a former Burnett executive, resigned. One of the two running the review, Marketing Director Mike Howe, is the former president of Y&R's Detroit office. Other key decisionmakers include Mr. Greenwald; David Coltman, senior VP-marketing; and Laurel Cutler, a longtime Foote, Cone & Belding manager now working as a consultant.
The airline has assembled a strong list of contenders. Fallon has a reputation for updating tired brands. Y&R played a big part in the turnaround of Sears, Roebuck & Co. TBWA has made news recently with an ambitious branding campaign for its biggest client, Nissan Motor Corp. USA.
Emotions at all the agencies are running high. The competitive zeal is especially intense between Burnett and Fallon, which have competed on assignments from McDonald's since Fallon joined the fast-food giant's roster last winter as lead agency on the Arch Deluxe sandwiches.
Contributing: Laura Petrecca, Michael Wilke.