The review follows the recent departure of VP-Advertising and Promotion John Ruhaak, but comes at a time of record earnings for the airline.
"It's great to be asked in but why a review?" asked a creative director at one of the agencies invited to pitch. "United has the best airline advertising around. It has got to be the [executive] change."
HOWE NOW CENTER-STAGE
A 22-year veteran of United and with Burnett for a decade before that, Mr. Ruhaak announced his retirement in early June. Michael Howe, formerly director of United's Mileage Plus frequent flier program and now director of advertising and promotion, takes over Mr. Ruhaak's responsibilities. David Coltman, senior VP-marketing, is leading the review with Mr. Howe.
Chicago-based Burnett will participate in the review and said in a statement it will "aggressively defend this flagship account."
Among others invited to pitch the business-including $66.5 million in U.S. media spending-are Young & Rubicam, Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, J. Walter Thompson USA and TBWA Chiat/Day, all New York; and Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis.
Foote, Cone & Belding, Chicago, declined an invitation to participate. DDB Needham Worldwide is said to have been contacted but will not participate because of conflicts with its American Airlines international account.
Several of the agencies contacted already have airline accounts, including Y&R (Lufthansa, a United marketing partner, in the U.S.), FCB (Northwest) and Saatchi & Saatchi (America West). O&M has some conflicts but an insider said it would be willing to resolve them to land the business.
Y&R TIES TO UNITED
Y&R has strong United ties through Mr. Howe, president-CEO of its Detroit office until 1995.
Agencies said they received both letters of invitation and questionnaires.
Saatchi & Saatchi has been seeking an airline account since it lost the $95 million British Airways business last year to M&C Saatchi.
There is also speculation United may be looking beyond a traditional agency setup to include talent companies, opening the possibility of unbundling media from the creative assignment.
United hasn't contacted International Creative Management, Beverly Hills, Calif., but Managing Director Heidi Sinclair said she would be interested.
"They need to have [a traditional] ad agency, but it's a good time to review their overall marketing approach and look for some different areas than advertising to reach the consumer," she said.
United just reported record second-quarter earnings up 57%-the best in 70 years-and respectable year-to-date passenger load factors. The carrier intends to expand its Shuttle by United into Denver and other markets later this summer.
Contributing: Mark Gleason, Laura Petrecca and Bradley Johnson.