In 2003, the brand was languishing amid the emergence of big-spending new rivals such as Geico, Progressive and Aflac. Burnett's most recent campaign had flopped, and the agency's team showed few signs of any better ideas. "The easiest thing would have been to fire Burnett," recalled Allstate's then-new VP-marketing, Lisa Cochrane. Instead, she pushed the agency to turn over most of the personnel on the account in a last-ditch effort to salvage the partnership.
What ultimately saved the agency was the late Leo Burnett himself. Someone at the shop got the idea to use a memo about the Allstate brand written by the agency founder as the basis for the insurer's "Our Stand" campaign, starring actor Dennis Haysbert. The ad's been running, and growing sales, ever since.
"We felt this great responsibility and fear," recalled Jeanie Caggiano, Burnett's top creative on Allstate and one of only a small handful of survivors of the 2003 purge still on the account. "We felt Leo looking down at us, saying, 'Don't screw this up.'"
The ability of agencies and clients to persevere for 50 years -- or even five -- is an increasingly rare feat in a world where chief marketers, whose tenures now last less than two years on average, frequently pass on their job insecurities to their agency partners.
Yet some accounts still manage to stay at the same shop for decades. Omnicom Group's BBDO has handled General Electric Corp.'s business since 1920; Burnett has held Kellogg since 1949; and DraftFCB forerunner Foote Cone & Belding has worked with SC Johnson & Son since 1953.
Agency executives and marketers involved in generation-spanning relationships such as those say the dynamics, benefits and challenges of working on those accounts are fundamentally different than they are on shorter-tenured pieces of business. Many, in fact, described long-running shop-marketer partnerships as if they were long marriages.
"The good side is, as an agency, you're forever finding ways to remind the client how irreplaceable your knowledge of their business is," said Dan Fox, a former FCB executive who spent more than 30 years working on long-tenured accounts including SC Johnson (54 years) and Coors (38 years) during his time there. "But the dark side is you're forever in danger of taking the relationship for granted, because it's been there so long."
Leo Burnett's successful spots for Allstate
Clients say the marriage metaphor is apt, particularly when it comes to communication. Mark Gibson, assistant VP-advertising at State Farm, which has used DDB, Chicago, for nearly 68 years, said both sides are well past the oversensitive and cautious stage of their relationship, and can be brutally honest when necessary without worrying about unsettling each other. "There's a bedrock there that lets you have an open and frank discussion."
But just as with marriage, when a long-term agency-client partnership ends, feelings of bitterness and a sense of crisis often result.
When Cadillac exited Burnett last year -- walking one of Mr. Burnett's personal accounts out the door -- many folks in and around the agency took it as a sign of the apocalypse there. "So many people work on an account like that, it becomes apart of the fabric of the place," said Burnett North America President Rich Stoddart. "It's really hard to lose something so many people have touched."
The Burnett-Cadillac split was hardly an isolated case. This past year, Wal-Mart left 32-year agency Bernstein-Rein, and, most recently, Kraft Foods shocked staffers and executives at its agency of 70 years, JWT, Chicago, by pulling five major accounts out of the office, leading the office to lay off 25% of staff and change management.
People familiar with the matter said Kraft's moves came with little warning and seemed designed to show disgruntled investors that an old marketer was reinventing itself. Kraft declined to comment. "They were just trying to demonstrate that they were a new organization by getting rid of an old relationship," said one ex-JWT Chicago staffer. "Longevity is irrelevant now."
That's little comfort, of course, to agency executives working on their shops' longest-tenured pieces of business, which frequently are seen as definitive accounts that can't be lost without enormous emotional and public-relations damage.
"The fear of being the one to lose it is significant," said Bob Scarpelli, chairman and chief creative officer at DDB Worldwide, of the prospect of losing an account like State Farm. "I don't want losing it on my tombstone."