AT&T 'Rethink' Signals Detente in Attack-Ad Battle With Verizon

Luke Wilson Recalled From Front as Carrier Takes on Feel-Good Lifestyle Effort; Will Verizon Follow Suit?

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NEW YORK ( -- It looks as if a truce has been called in the wireless wars.

After months of putting much of its $1.87 billion media budget behind ads featuring Luke Wilson to beat back Verizon Wireless, AT&T is taking the high road with a new campaign themed "Rethink Possible." And after funding its "There's a map for that" ads that tear down AT&T's coverage with a big chunk of its $2.16 billion media budget, Verizon is expected to also relinquish its weapon.

"Verizon is going to have to do the same," predicted industry analyst Jeff Kagan. "I think Verizon is watching, and I bet its agency is scrambling."

AT&T's new ad direction -- one dripping with positive statements such as "Because before it could be done, it couldn't," and "These are indeed amazing times" -- is evidence of telecom's latest evolution. In a saturated market (234 million Americans age 13 and older are already mobile subscribers as of February, according to ComScore), telecommunications companies are going to rely on new services rather than new customers to drive growth.

"Getting beyond the back-and-forth is a great mission," said Con Williamson, chief creative office for Euro RSCG, New York. "In the end, no one won -- the Luke Wilson ads were embarrassing. I love the idea of a company unifying behind one mission and letting everyone else figure out to respond."

'Rethink possible'
It will soon be tough to escape "Rethink Positive" as AT&T throws its giant ad budget at the umbrella campaign. "It's not going to be the old model that there's brand work, and then there's consumer work or enterprise work; it's all 'Rethink Possible,'" said Esther Lee, AT&T's senior VP-brand marketing and advertising. In fact, the push is expected to eclipse AT&T's last major $1 billion repositioning in 2006, "Your World. Delivered."

Spots from Omnicom's BBDO introducing the new theme launched during the Masters tournament last week, along with a mission statement on the company's website. The spots promote a range of AT&T services such as DVR-anywhere UVerse, mobile and internet. There's also a new logo, new signage, packaging and color palettes beyond the current dominant orange leftover from Cingular, along with new store d├ęcor, all from holding company sibling Interbrand.

With new agency assignments, as well as services that span wireless, TV and telecom, Verizon is primed to launch an entirely new ad strategy, too. The No. 3 U.S. ad spender shuffled ad duties last week, moving wireless from McCann to McGarryBowen. It also assigned R/GA as its digital agency of record for telecom, yanking business from Publicis Groupe's Moxie Interactive.

For some, AT&T's latest campaign is reminiscent of its famed 1993 "You Will" ads from NW Ayer, New York. Narrated by Tom Selleck, those spots ran through a series of predictions about future technology, and most have since come true, like GPS navigation, electronic books and tablet computers. "This time it's a little more in the present," said Charles Golvin, Forrester principal analyst specializing in wireless. "This looks to me like AT&T is saying: 'We're allowing you today to do things that were previously impossible.'"

But will the lofty mission resonate with consumers?

Practical concerns
"It's a relatively strong statement for them to make," said Mr. Golvin. "If there's disconnect for me, it's that there is so much animosity directed toward cell carriers today."

"The person who is of that mind-set is going to look at this advertising and laugh derisively -- 'How about keeping my call connected? That was previously impossible for you,'" said Mr. Golvin. "

"I wonder if consumers are going to call bullshit," said Mr. Williamson, who was hired by Ms. Lee during her reign as CEO-North America of global brands for Euro RSCG Worldwide.

AT&T is also looking to highlight the innovation coming from AT&T labs that, if released, will require network connectivity and put even more strain on its system. One BBDO spot, called "Spelling Bee," asks, "What will happen when everyone has [access to the web]?"

It's a question AT&T may have to rethink.

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