What Esther Lee Will Bring to AT&T's Marketing

Peers Say Former Coke Creative Will Rekindle Telecom's Emotional Connection With Consumers

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SAN FRANCISCO (AdAge.com) -- AT&T, one of the top-advertised brands in the U.S., has added to its marketing arsenal by tapping former Coca-Cola exec Esther Lee to oversee brand marketing, advertising creative and media strategy.

Esther Lee
Esther Lee
By all accounts, Ms. Lee likely will shake up the way the No. 2 U.S. wireless carrier, with some $2 billion in measured media last year, markets its wares. Ms. Lee, who started this week, is known to be a stickler for quality and is certain to challenge how AT&T has branded itself while viewing it with a fresh eye, former colleagues said. She is almost certain to lay down some big ideas, including new ways to mine the emotional currency of the stay-connected narrative telcos have seized on.

"She'll be very good at asking questions that AT&T didn't know to ask," said a former colleague who declined to be named. The questions, this person said, are likely to range from "What is the role of AT&T in people's lives?" to "What emotional space can AT&T own?"

The company's newest marketing executive, who declined to be interviewed, is also likely to refresh the emotional appeal that underpins its communications. She really understands the emotional import of AT&T, and the marketing she develops will reflect that, said Greg DiNoto, who opened an independent shop with Ms. Lee in 1997. "I don't mean she'll come up with a saccharine appeal but an appeal that will be resonant and compelling. The category has lived and died on the basis of connection. I imagine Esther will re-evaluate or reinterpret that at a fundamental level."

Void left by Wendy Clark
Though AT&T said Ms. Lee's role is newly created, some ad execs pointed out the post likely was created to fill the void left by Wendy Clark, who left last year as AT&T's senior marketing VP. Ms. Lee will report to Cathy Coughlin, AT&T senior exec VP-global marketing officer.

Ms. Lee, a graduate of Cornell University, was a senior VP at J. Walter Thompson before moving to Deutsch in 1993, where she was VP-director of agency development and client service. Four years later, she and Mr. DiNoto launched their agency, DiNoto Lee. At her next stop as Coca-Cola's chief creative officer, Ms. Lee made her mark, elevating design to a key piece of the marketing mix and hiring the beverage company's first VP-design. Euro RSCG tapped her to be CEO of North America and president of global brands, but she parted ways with the agency in fall 2008, after little more than a year.

That Ms. Lee comes to her role at AT&T without deep telecom marketing experience is a non-issue, former associates said. "The technology is pretty straightforward; you can pick it up pretty easily," said David Jones, CEO of Havas Worldwide and global CEO of Euro RSCG Worldwide. "Fundamentally, what she's good at is understanding the consumer, and a key role of marketing is in connecting with consumers. She's an extremely creative and entrepreneurial individual who's very good at driving fully integrated campaigns."

With 78 million wireless customers, AT&T commands 29% of the market, just behind Verizon Wireless' 32% share. But it faces a number of challenges, including the long-running decline of its landline business and fierce competition in the cable-broadband business as it tackles Comcast and others.

On the wireless side, AT&T needs to make sure consumer appetite for mobile-data services does not exceed the capacity of its 3G infrastructure, which it is continuing to build out. AT&T's arrangement with Apple to be exclusive carrier of the iPhone is set to expire in 2010, exposing the risks of relying on a single handset to drive growth. Meanwhile, a handful of compelling new smartphones are aiming to knock some wind out of the iPhone.

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson recently declared wireless the company's priority, so it's a safe bet AT&T's wireless business will suck up a sizeable chunk of marketing spending. BBDO is AT&T's agency of record.

Challenges of iconic brand
One of Ms. Lee's challenges will be to help AT&T shed any remaining "your grandfather's telephone company" baggage from the days when it was an old-fashioned monopoly. The challenge for any iconic, cross-generational brand is to relentlessly seek new ways to make sure its history is not a weight to its past but an engine to its future, said Brian Collins, who earlier this decade ran the brand-integration group at Ogilvy, which Ms. Lee hired during her tenure at Coca-Cola.

"Esther brings an incisive understanding of what makes a brand really tick, what gives it energy and life. She also understands that a brand is an idea that responds to -- as well as shapes -- the larger culture," said Mr. Collins, who is now chief creative officer of brand and design company Collins.

Another challenge, according to ad executives who said they did not want to be quoted, is that while AT&T needs some big ideas, its unclear how well Ms. Lee, who some characterize as ambitious and tough to work with, will navigate an organization as buttoned-down and bureaucratic as AT&T. While one executive called the marriage a cultural mismatch, another skeptically asked: Will AT&T allow her to achieve what she's capable of achieving?

Ultimately it could be Ms. Lee's business acumen that takes AT&T's marketing to a new level. "She's looking at the business reality first, then will talk marketing," said Mr. DiNoto, who now runs his eponymous agency. "She's a bona-fide business person who looks at the bones of the business and their dynamics before she asks: What flags are we going to wave? That orientation is critical in a category that's in a convulsive state of change."

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