Mullen Wins U.S. Cellular After Review

Account Was Biggest for Incumbent Hal Riney

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Wireless carrier U.S. Cellular has chosen Interpublic Group of Cos.' Mullen , Boston, to handle its creative and digital account after a review, Ad Age has learned.

Publicis Groupe 's Publicis & Hal Riney handled creative duties, while sibling agency Modem managed digital marketing.

It's understood that the review, overseen by consultant Mercer Island Group, included creative duties across several media, including broadcast, digital and out-of -home. In the final stages of the process, it was said to be a shootout between Mullen and the incumbent.

The move is a major setback to San Francisco-based Riney: It is the agency's largest account, and Publicis Groupe has been trying to breathe renewed life into the shop by bringing fresh talent on board. It's also a blow to the San Francisco ad market, which has seen several major marketers take their accounts to agencies elsewhere or launch reviews in past months. Sprint, Hewlett-Packard and Commonwealth Bank recently left Goodby Silverstein & Partners and the University of Phoenix split from Pereira & O' Dell .

"When U.S. Cellular brought in new management, including a new CMO, we anticipated a change and have been managing our business accordingly," said Harold Sogard, chairman at Publicis & Hal Riney, in a statement to Ad Age . "There will be some impact, naturally, but it will be relatively small." The agency has "nothing but respect for both U.S. Cellular and Mullen , and we wish them well together," he added.

Hal Riney and sibling media agency Starcom , which was unaffected by the review, have been handling the U.S. Cellular account since 2007.

"Mullen impressed us with the breadth and originality of its strategic thinking," said David Kimbell, VP-marketing for U.S. Cellular, in a statement. "We have bold ambitions for the brand, and in Mullen we have an agency partner with a proven ability to creatively express the unique qualities of challenger brands and make them stand out in the marketplace." 

From left: Mullen Chief Creative Officer Mark Wenneker; Chief Strategy Officer Kristen Cavallo; President Alex Leikikh.
From left: Mullen Chief Creative Officer Mark Wenneker; Chief Strategy Officer Kristen Cavallo; President Alex Leikikh. Credit: Kara Kochalko

The Chicago-based carrier has made a number of management changes over the past 18 months. Seventh Generation and PepsiCo alum David Kimbell was named VP-marketing in early 2011. And Mary Dillon joined as president-CEO in May 2010 after serving as global CMO at McDonald's.

U.S. Cellular -- the country's No. 6 wireless provider, according to its website -- spent $74.5 million on marketing in the U.S. from January through October of last year, according to Kantar (the full-year number will likely be higher). The company spent $98.3 million in 2010, compared with $109.3 million in 2009, according to Kantar.

Those numbers are a fraction of Verizon Communications', telecom's biggest spender, with $1.5 billion in U.S. outlays.

"U.S. Cellular is poised to take on its larger competitors with uniquely different products and services," Alex Leikikh, president of Mullen , said in a statement. "Our job is to tell its story in a fresh, compelling way."

Last month, Mullen picked up creative, digital and media duties for paint-maker Benjamin Moore. The move came a month after the agency parted ways with fast-casual chain Panera because of what the agency called creative differences.

Mullen 's other wins in the past year include creative and media duties for iRobot, media duties for LivingSocial, agency-of -record duties for GM Fleet and Commercial and EmblemHealth, creative and media for Barnes & Noble, and some work for Google's mobile technology and services division.

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