DeBeers' agency shift gets new facet

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Ayer seeks trademark protection for ex-client

N.W. Ayer & Partners, New York, has filed trademark applications for various phrases and titles it created for former client DeBeers Consolidated Mines.

An Ayer spokeswoman said registering the trademarks, including "A diamond is forever," will protect the names and slogans as they're passed over to J. Walter Thompson USA. DeBeers abruptly gave JWT control of its U.S. account last month after initially saying it would wait until Dec. 31 to make the switch.

Such trademark protection, however, would be months away, and JWT is already using some of the Ayer-created terms. Ad industry observers doubt Ayer would try to assert its right to such trademarks, and in the process throw a monkey wrench into JWT's efforts for DeBeers.

Instead, observers say, the move looks more like an attempt by Ayer to gain a favorable position in severance negotiations and highlight some of its more memorable DeBeers work.

Usually advertisers trademark ad slogans and brand names. Because DeBeers is a cartel, it isn't allowed to do business directly in the U.S. and thus can't apply for trademarks. DeBeers uses its ad agency essentially as its business agent in this country.

Ayer didn't apply for the trademarks before because it received protection from "common-law usage," the spokeswoman said. Now that JWT is taking over, she said, it's in DeBeers' and JWT's interests to have Ayer apply for the trademarks because of its decades-long history using them. If JWT applied as a new user, it would have no better standing than any other applicant.

Ayer is seeking protection for the famous "Forever" slogan and basic jewelry names such as "diamond anniversary band" and "diamond engagement ring." It also wants protection for the "Four C's" (cut, clarity, carat and color), and the "Diamond Information Center" and "Diamond Promotion Service." The center and promotion service are organizations that work with the jewelry trade on DeBeers' behalf. Ayer used to run them; now JWT does.

Ayer acted on its own in filing the applications with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, said Joan Parker, director of the Diamond Information Center and client public relations at JWT. Ms. Parker followed DeBeers to JWT after a long career at Ayer.

But Stephen Lussier, director of consumer marketing for DeBeers, said: "In fairness, it's not something we would normally get involved in."

Mr. Lussier said he expects the transfer of the account from Ayer to JWT and related financial details to be resolved smoothly and soon. Except for media, which Ayer will handle through December, everything has been moved over to JWT, he said.

DeBeers' split with Ayer has been an ugly one, all sides agree. It started when DeBeers assured Ayer CEO Mary Lou Quinlan in mid-August it had no plans to move the account. Two weeks later, it gave the business to JWT, which handles DeBeers in the rest of the world.

Steamed, Ms. Quinlan made it clear to Ayer staffers she would try to block any defections to JWT by holding them to non-compete clauses in their contracts. That move probably backfired, insiders say, resulting in more defections rather than fewer.

In all, about 20 people eventually moved to JWT. Many had worked on the DeBeers account for a long time, some more than 10 years. Several of the 20 have expressed unhappiness about Ayer's--and Ms. Quinlan's--treatment of them in the transition.

So far, Ayer has taken no legal action against the ex-staffers.

Copyright November 1995 Crain Communications Inc.

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