Signs of Burnett's woes growing curiously strong

Loss of creatively lauded Altoids a psychological, if not financial, blow to shop

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Saying goodbye to the U.S. Army and Cadillac made 2006 a rough year for Leo Burnett, and 2007 isn't starting out a whole lot better.

Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. last week reassigned creative duties for Altoids, its most-awarded account, to Publicis & Hal Riney, Chicago. The company did not say whether it had spoken to any other agency, but two people familiar with the matter said Wrigley recently offered Altoids to Crispin Porter & Bogusky, Miami, which passed on the business. A Crispin spokesman declined to comment.

The shift comes as pressure mounts on the marketer to justify the $1.5 billion it paid in 2004 to acquire the then-scalding-hot brand (along with sibling Life Savers) from Kraft Foods. In the 52 weeks ending Dec. 3, 2006, Altoids surrendered the No. 1 position in the breath-freshener category to rival Hershey's Ice Breakers, which grew 39%, while Altoids sales fell 13%, according to Information Resources Inc. The figures are for drug and mass merchandisers, excluding Wal-Mart.

As Burnett's client list goes, Altoids, which spent $16.3 million in 2005, is a blip compared to Kellogg, Procter & Gamble and Philip Morris. But in the 13 years Burnett has handled the account, its profile has greatly exceeded its billings.

In 2006 alone, Burnett's work on Altoids won it two Kelly Awards, two One Show prizes, three Clios and a New York Festivals Grand Prix, far more than any other Burnett account. "The 'Curiously Strong' campaign is arguably one of the most awarded and successful campaigns of the last 12 years and we are proud to have created it," the agency said in a statement following the loss.

The critical acclaim made Altoids a useful showpiece in new-business pitches. "It's the most impressive work they've got," said one former Burnett account executive.

Moreover, there are concerns within Burnett that two major accounts, the $150 million Hallmark Cards and $200 million Walt Disney Co. business that former Chief Creative Officer Cheryl Berman played a critical role in, may be unsettled by her departure.

The Chicago Sun-Times last week reported that McGarry Bowen, New York, has been increasingly winning Disney theme-park assignments away from Burnett. McGarry Bowen surfaced on the account-dominated by Burnett since the mid-1990s-earlier this year.

"We use a roster approach with our advertising work," said Michael Mendenhall, exec VP-global marketing Disney Destinations. "Burnett remains one of the agencies in that roster."

Ms. Berman, a controversial figure who sometimes clashed with other executives during her 32-year run at Burnett, is credited with maintaining crucial relationships with Hallmark. Attempts to reach Ms. Berman were not successful and Hallmark did not return a call for comment. But one executive said, "You cannot overstate how important Cheryl was to that relationship."
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