Unilever, P&G dial up challenger agencies

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After years of favoring a single global agency network for each global brand, Unilever and Procter & Gamble Co. are opening their clubby rosters to newer, scrappier challengers.

Unilever has quietly begun applying more broadly the Axe-Lynx model, in which Interpublic Group of Cos.' Lowe and Bartle Bogle Hegarty vie to create ads globally. Last week it acknowledged naming Bartle Bogle to handle a new U.S. assignment for the Dove personal care brand, long handled globally by WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather.

A Unilever spokeswoman indicated the new assignment, for which MDC-backed Crispin Porter & Bogusky also competed, is for new "brand activation" work, rather than advertising now handled by O&M, Chicago. She said the assignment poses no threat to Ogilvy.

But executives familiar with the situation said the move was part of Unilever's broader shift toward challenger agencies, and one noted it's "found that having a single global agency on each of its brands isn't always the best idea."

Similarly, P&G, which consolidated almost all its advertising globally with Publicis Groupe and Grey Global Group in early 2003-and primarily with four global networks within those companies-is also mulling diversification. "There are agencies within our networks we haven't worked with, such as [Publicis'] Fallon and Team One," P&G Chief Marketing Officer Jim Stengel said. "There are lots of interesting possibilities even within our network as we look at our portfolio of brands, our new brands, and what they need."

He pointed to the assignment late last year of marketing for P&G's Intrinsa female sex-drive patch to a host of Publicis shops, including Publicis Worldwide and Amazon, San Francisco. Amazon is 50% owned by Publicis' Leo Burnett Co. (which also holds 49% of Bartle Bogle). "We tapped into some agencies that we hadn't worked with much," Mr. Stengel said. "They put together a nice proposition for us."

paying off

Unilever's move is already paying off creatively, with two gold Lions in film and five Lions in print, outdoor and cyber at the Cannes International Advertising Festival all coming from so-called challengers, including Bartle Bogel; interactive shop Glue, London; and tiny Zig, Toronto. The latter's "Prison Visitor" ad for the Canadian Zim cleanser brand was a close contender for the film Grand Prix.

"We try to maintain the degree of confidence we have in the group of agencies with which we've aligned our brands," said Michael Brockbank, VP-brand communications for Unilever. "But, on the other hand, every brand occasionally needs an injection of fresh blood. ... That's something we certainly have pursued in the past and will continue to pursue."

unintended effect

Unilever's move dovetails in some respects with the "distribution theory" of WPP Group Chairman-CEO Martin Sorrell, who has talked of using his media shop MindShare as a hub to distribute creative ideas from a variety of agencies, which are in turn tailored to local tastes by the outposts of global agency networks.

But the challenger concept could be coming back to bite him. While initially Unilever's challengers put at risk accounts at Interpublic's Lowe and Omnicom's DDB, the Bartle Bogle Dove appointment hits at WPP's own O&M.

As for P&G, while the client is happy with its core agencies, it will continue with "experimentation around the fringes," Mr. Stengel said, including using interactive, direct and other agencies outside its main holding companies. "P&G's brands, whatever their marketing model is, need the best in class working with them," he said. "If the marketing model evolves in areas where our agencies don't have competencies, we'll find them elsewhere."

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