Citibank choice of Fallon signals edgier approach

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Citigroup assigned its Citibank U.S. advertising account, with spending of $120 million, to Fallon, Minneapolis, three years after consolidating the company's global account at Y&R Advertising, New York. Y&R will retain the account outside the U.S., while sibling Young & Rubicam shop Impiric will keep Citibank's direct marketing account.

Citibank executives did not return phone calls by press time, and Fallon executives refused to comment on the win.

Citibank appears eager to break out of the stodgy banking mold, observers said, given the ultracreative agencies it considered. The choice of Fallon -- which pitched in the finals against TBWA/Chiat/Day, New York and Playa del Rey, Calif., another edgy creative agency -- raised a few eyebrows.


But the big question will be if Citibank can stomach Fallon's quirkiness, said one executive familiar with the pitch. Fallon has drawn attention -- and criticism -- in the past when it used a walking Christopher Reeve in a Super Bowl spot for Nuveen Investments and plugged Holiday Inn hotels with a transvestite spokesperson. Quirky and edgy may be just what Citibank wanted -- or at least as quirky and edgy as a large bank can get, other participants in the review said.

The bank was looking for a "big idea" to define its image, said an executive at one of the semifinalist agencies. The agencies were all asked for a strategic positioning to define Citibank's brand and a creative hook to bring that image home.

"They are a huge brand with little personality and no real emotional value surrounding the brand," said the pitch leader at another agency contender. "They want the advertising to create a flag that everybody can salute."


Citibank executives have said the review was brought on by changes, including the Citicorp-Travelers Group merger in 1998. But observers noted the bank has gone through high-level management turnover, including the departures of Exec VP-Global Business Bill Campbell and Exec VP-Global Marketing Brian Ruder, both of whom had ties to Y&R.

Financial services have become commodities, which makes a strong brand image even more important today than during the consolidation wave that hit the banking industry in the early 1990s, said John Grace, executive director of Interbrand, a brand consultancy that works with Citibank. "The question in the decade we're in now is not [brand] awareness, but relevance," he said.

But while contenders in the pitch agreed Citibank needs a relevant image, they also noted some caveats: Citigroup's management is still in flux after the merger, and its marketing structure and corporate culture are still not settled. Additionally, Citibank has a built-in bureaucracy that will make selling a campaign a challenge, the insiders added.

Contributing: Hillary Chura.

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