Why United Tapped Tiny Startup

Airline Follows Creatives Behind 'Time to Fly' Push to Just-Born BDM

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For United Airlines, shifting its creative account from a 10-year relationship with Fallon Worldwide to week-old independent shop Barrie D'Rozario Murphy was all about a commitment to a campaign.
'We think the campaign is truly timeless,' said United's senior VP-marketing, Dennis Cary. 'Having two of the key principals who created that campaign at BDM now is really important for us.'
'We think the campaign is truly timeless,' said United's senior VP-marketing, Dennis Cary. 'Having two of the key principals who created that campaign at BDM now is really important for us.'

Three years ago, the creative team at Fallon helped United differentiate itself from its competitors with a series of animated and fantastical spots geared toward the emotional experience of being a frequent business flyer. "It's Time to Fly" was underscored by the notes of the George Gershwin composition "Rhapsody in Blue."

"We think the campaign is truly timeless," said United's senior VP-marketing, Dennis Cary. "Having two of the key principals who created that campaign at BDM now is really important for us."

Following campaign creators
Those principals are Bob Barrie and Stuart D'Rozario, who worked on the United account at Publicis Groupe's Fallon before leaving in November 2006 and resurfacing in late March to announce that they, along with David Murphy, president at Saatchi & Saatchi, Los Angeles, were forming their own agency in Minneapolis.

Within days of BDM opening its doors as a partnership, United shifted its creative account to the threesome. While it may seem United is taking a huge chance as the charter client of a tiny, untested agency, Mr. Cary doesn't see it that way. "It was something we considered very carefully. With the stable of agencies we have now -- BDM being lead creative and driving the energy of 'It's Time to Fly,' our relatively new relationship with Starcom on the media side and our long-standing relationship with Arc Worldwide on the field-promotion and tactical-promotion side -- we think it makes a lot of sense for us."

Spending on the business has been low-flying of late. While United spent some $100 million in 2004, its measured-media outlays have steadily descended. The airline spent just $54 million in 2006 and is said to be spending a lot less than that on media.

After United emerged from bankruptcy last year, it announced it would revisit its advertising strategy. Julie Koewler, managing director-marketing development, said the airline was searching for a more effective marketing mix and wanted to bolster its communications strategy. "It's more about harnessing our existing budget to work harder for us in a concentrated period of time," she said. However, spending didn't just shift -- if fell off radically.

Perks of a small agency
The consolidation of media at Publicis Groupe's Starcom and the decision to move the creative business to a small agency can be taken as signs that the airline is seeking out a more creative, media-diverse and economically efficient way to reach out to consumers. "Like any good marketing team, we are looking to be more effective and more efficient all the time," Mr. Cary said. "This decision [to hire BDM], coupled with the media decision, allows us to have more energy behind the campaign ... [and] to be more open across channels about which solutions make sense."

However, a major revamp of the company's international first- and business-class cabins and promotions surrounding that revamp slated for later this year, as well as a TV campaign that will run during NBC's coverage of the Beijing Olympics next year, could result in a big bump in spending.

Mr. D'Rozario said the shift marks another milestone in a growing trend. "I think you will see more and more large companies seeking out boutique shops who are willing to work with and manage their partner agencies. In our case, we are small and nimble, able to manage the tone of the brand, work with other agencies and bring onboard whatever other talent United will need to get the message across."

David Murphy, BDM co-president and executive director-brand innovation, sees the United assignment as the first great test of what the partners hope the agency will be. "We really had a shared vision of what agency should be and what clients need," he said. "That's an agency with no walls; no walls between disciplines, no walls between agency and client, and no walls between us and the clients other agencies. It's a totally collaborative effort."
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