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Running a good agency review is hard. Picking a good agency may be easier. The secret: Skip the review and choose an agency based on relationships and reputation.

In 1994, IBM Corp.'s Louis Gerstner and Abby Kohnstamm fired some 80 agencies and handed their then-$500 million global account to Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide. IBM quietly and informally had scoped O&M, BBDO Worldwide and McCann-Erickson Worldwide -- and settled on the one Mr. Gerstner and Ms. Kohnstamm had worked with at American Express Co.

The result? O&M has produced some of the most lauded work in tech advertising, making a fallen brand relevant again.

This year, the nation's three biggest PC brands -- Dell, Compaq, Gateway -- also all moved their global accounts without a public review. The difference, though, is that each axed a global brand agency picked just a year before in careful, measured agency reviews.

Compaq Computer Corp. cut Ammirati Puris Lintas and hired DDB Needham Worldwide, agency for its just-acquired Digital Equipment Corp.; Gateway fired D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles and picked McCann-Erickson; Dell dropped J. Walter Thompson USA for Apple Computer's former shop, BBDO.

True, these fairly sudden switches all followed the arrival of new marketing brass -- new boss, new agency. But they hardly pulled the plug on winning relationships: There was turmoil on the accounts, with much of the work criticized by tech ad insiders.

If you're picking an agency for an account where there may be dozens of contenders, a formal review may make sense. But agencies are expert at presenting a slick image; the so-called beauty contests are only skin deep, and there's a better way to begin a long-term relationship. If you have a big tech account, where the list of conflict-free agency networks is limited, there's little reason to stage a grand review. A confident management team should be able to scan that narrow band of agencies and pick a winner.

Leave it to IBM to come up with a solution for a small planet.M

No-fear ads

Either frito-lay thought Olean, the fat substitute in its Wow! potato chips, was so revolutionary it had to have a new way to sell the brand, or it was just plain scared because of the ingredient's publicized potential side effects.

The normally savvy marketer's soft-sell introductory ad campaign for Wow! asked aging boomers to think back to when they were children playing in treehouses or floating around on a lazy summer day in a rubber inner-tube. The message -- delivered . . . oh . . . so . . . slowly, and clearly hazy as a result -- was that if you liked those bygone days, when you could eat whatever you wanted, you can do it again because these chips are fat-free.

There are varying reports on whether Wow's sales are bad or good -- Frito-Lay, for one, prefers the positive spin. As for the ad campaign, however, the verdict is in: It's gone the way of lazy summer days. New ads sell, sell, sell in a supermarket, not a treehouse, and say that if the consumer doesn't like the product -- technically, can taste the difference between Wow! and fat-full chips -- then Frito-Lay is offering their money back. (Now that's original.)

There's a lesson here, of course. If a marketer is not afraid to make a controversial product, then it shouldn't be afraid to adequately market it, either. A fearful approach is bound to fail.

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