How Omnicom kept Visa in the family

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early last summer, executives at BBDO, New York, pitched Visa USA Chief Marketing Officer Susanne Lyons a campaign that would do away with the 19-year-old tagline "It's Everywhere You Want to Be." The Visa decision-makers rejected the work, saying that its theme of possibility was too similar to ads that Sprint Nextel had just broken to announce its merger.

Then, in a move that smacks of irony, Visa less than six months later handed its $330 million ad business to Sprint's consumer agency, TBWA/Chiat/Day, Playa del Rey, Calif., ending a 20-year relationship between BBDO and one of its biggest clients. But thanks to an effective late-inning effort from Omnicom President-CEO John Wren, what could have been a rare loss for Omnicom goes on the books as a save, giving the typically hands-off holding-company chief a rare moment in the spotlight positioning Omnicom as the only place Visa wants to be.

The souring relationship between BBDO and Visa led Mr. Wren, who usually defers client matters to his agencies, to get into the mix just as Visa approached search consultancy Select Resources International about conducting a review that would include agencies owned by other holding companies. As exploratory discussions were getting under way, Mr. Wren persuaded Ms. Lyons to limit her search to Omnicom shops, leading to a shootout between TBWA, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners and BBDO. The last agency, at a meeting in New York, had threatened to bail on the account if it was taken outside Omnicom.

In an interview last week, Ms. Lyons acknowledged Mr. Wren's role and said the review was triggered by a changed marketplace in which Visa no longer needs to emphasize how widely it's accepted by merchants. Visa is No. 1 in terms of share of cards in force, with 51%, according to MasterCard has 38%. Visa has overhauled its management, hiring two former Charles Schwab executives: CEO John Philip Coghlan and Ms. Lyons.

"We want to help people see we are broader than a credit card and a piece of plastic," she said. "Product innovation is becoming more important."

For instance, Visa has developed a credit-card design that will be issued next year and it's changed its logo to one that's easier to fit on new payment forms such as mini cards and contact-less cards. The messaging will be focused on security and convenience. She said it hasn't been determined whether creative developed for the Super Bowl will bear a new tagline or whether that will come later.

`new thinking'

TBWA's work, believed by executives familiar with the situation to strike a more emotional chord, fared better in quantitative and qualitative testing. Ms. Lyons would only say that the agency presented "excellent new thinking." The win adds to a good run for TBWA, which was successful earlier this year in winning consumer ad duties for Sprint Nextel.

For BBDO, the loss of Visa as the marketer changes its approach is a major blow that's softened considerably by the fact that the agency has hauled in about $1 billion in new billings this year. "We're disappointed," said a spokesman. "But it's still been a record-setting year." BBDO is holding on to the Visa business in other parts of the world.

Among those new clients is Bank of America, which BBDO will handle as part of an Omnicom victory earlier this year. It's unclear whether BBDO will handle BofA's newest acquisition, the affinity-credit-card issuer MBNA.

The big loser in all this may well turn out to be Goodby, which resigned Discover Card, an $80 million account, to take part in the Visa pitch. The account is now in review managed by SRI.

Asked whether the agency regretted the move, a Goodby executive replied, "Not at all," adding that it would have been wrong to pursue the business of a competitor while still working for Discover.

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