In 'Huge Loss' at $3.2 Billion Spender, Wendy Clark Exits AT&T
Oversaw Integration of SBC, Cingular Into Telecom Giant
NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Jim Stengel isn't the only bold-face name to leave his marketing perch -- the top executive at AT&T, Wendy Clark, is departing as well, leaving a big hole at the nation's second-largest advertiser.
With plans to expand internationally, the telecom likely will look to do deals that will require more large-scale communications efforts of the sort that accompanies its rebranding of Cingular Wireless. But the sprawling company will have to do so without Ms. Clark, who helped it navigate a hectic, complex period of acquisitions in recent years.
As first reported on AdAge.com last week, the departure of AT&T's senior VP-advertising was triggered by AT&T's relocation from San Antonio to Dallas, said executives familiar with the situation.
It's not uncommon for ambitious marketers at major brands to get stymied by corporate bureaucracies and see their tenure marked more by big talk than by big actions. By all accounts that did not happen to Ms. Clark. Her leave-taking was described by one executive close to AT&T as "a huge loss." Another said she'll be "sorely missed" by a company that saw her as part of its long-term plans. AT&T is already conducting a search to replace her and, one executive said, is considering Darryl Evans, now VP-advertising at AT&T's Wireless unit.
Whoever gets the post will have large shoes to fill. Not only did Ms. Clark oversee the second-largest advertising budget in the U.S. market, she had a broad reach that touched just about every major marketing initiative in recent years, as AT&T shook up its agency roster -- moving a huge chunk of business from her old stomping grounds, GSD&M, to BBDO -- and consolidating its media-buying account. She changed the AT&T store design, making sure Cingular branding was stripped out in time for the launch of Apple's iPhone, and, of course, spent billions to make SBC Communications and Cingular Wireless a part of the AT&T banner. In her management of agency relations, she was known for inspiring collaboration while ensuring that agencies didn't stray from the scope of work they were hired to do.
With a 2007 measured-media budget of $2.3 billion, AT&T trailed only Procter & Gamble in spending. The overall number was down slightly from 2006, when it ballooned in order to communicate the rebranding of Cingular, courtesy of BBDO, following AT&T's purchase of the brand in its acquisition of BellSouth.
The decision to eliminate Cingular, launched in 2000 as a joint venture between SBC and BellSouth, was a controversial one that had many critics, including this magazine. After all, Cingular had six years of heavy marketing backing that had helped give it some credibility with younger consumers. AT&T, on the other hand, had the whiff of a bygone corporate America, with the brand itself by and large out of the consumer eye. And when it did have meaning, the associations were often negative.
Throughout it all, Ms. Clark was said to be unwavering in her support for the AT&T brand. "There was no second-guessing" even amid the criticism, one executive said.
While the rebranding gets mixed reviews from independent experts, it still gets high marks internally. The brand does suffer a bit from the company's immense size and reach, as well as the struggles with customer service that bedevil all telecom-services providers. On the website Brand Tags, which allows consumers to input their brand associations, some of AT&T's most popular tags include "monopoly" "evil" and "death star," the last a reference to the corporate logo, a globe that's often likened to the menacing planet-destroying space station in "Star Wars."
However, also among the most popular tags is iPhone, an association that's given AT&T just a bit of hipness.
Ms. Clark's loss may be felt most in the future if the telecom tries to grow by acquisition and finds itself in need of someone who can manage marketing through massive periods of cultural change.
"AT&T will do other acquisitions, and having the sort of intellectual capital Wendy has in terms of managing transitions is critical," one executive said. "Look at the Sprint-Nextel merger and how bad that has been. You would have thought that would have been far easier than Cingular-AT&T, but it didn't turn out that way."
Ms. Clark couldn't be reached for comment, and an AT&T spokeswoman declined to make her available for an interview. The company released a statement that confirmed her departure. "We appreciate Wendy Clark's leadership during a period when the company significantly expanded its operations and successfully launched the new AT&T brand. We wish her all the best in the future."