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The 800-Pound Ad Review: Wal-Mart

It must have sucked to be Bob Bernstein and Skip Rein last Wednesday. The two founders of Bernstein-Rein, a Missouri-based ad agency, have been the agency of record for Wal-Mart for the past, get this: 32 years. Less than a week ago the behemoth retailer announced they were putting its $578 million account — which Bernstein-Rein shared with the sexier Omnicom GSD&M — up for review — the first time in 30 years. Ouch.

It must have sucked to be Bob Bernstein and Skip Rein last Wednesday. The two founders of Bernstein-Rein, a Missouri-based ad agency, have been the agency of record for Wal-Mart for the past, get this: 32 years. Less than a week ago the behemoth retailer announced they were putting its $578 million account — which Bernstein-Rein shared with the sexier Omnicom GSD&M — up for review — the first time in 30 years. Ouch. It couldn’t have been any easier to be one of B-R’s 300 employees, knowing full-well that Wal-Mart was its 800-pound feeding tube, and they better start dusting off their resumes.

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Since Wal-Mart’s new CMO, John Fleming, came on board from Target last year, he’s been making chess-like moves to shake off its “deep-discount” positioning to court wealthier, hipper customers. Last year the 19-year Target vet assembled a NY office of “trendspotters” (sound like Target anyone?), plucking fashion and design talent from Levi’s, West Elm and Jonathan Adler — and advertising its new fashion line, Metro 7, in Vogue last fall. This week’s AdAge tracks Fleming’s other moves over the past few months, which include: trying to land a big name designer for their roster, adding upmarket products to its shelves, pumping up his marketing team with 60 new brains, and quietly retiring the 11-year-old smiley faced icon to some sunny resort in Florida.

Bernstein-Rein and GSD&M will not lose the account without a fight, though. Both agencies say they plan on keeping themselves in the review mix. But with Wal-Mart keeping the review open equally to Madison Ave monoliths as well as smaller boutique hotshops — and Fleming’s clear craving for change — they better start plotting for Plan B. Wal-Mart, on the other hand, may enter a new chapter of cooler, sexier brand positioning — but no matter how good their new shop’s ads are — they still have plenty of nefarious imaging to shake off.

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About the author

Danielle Sacks is an award-winning journalist and a former senior writer at Fast Company magazine. She's chronicled some of the most provocative people in business, with seven cover stories that included profiles on J.Crew's Jenna Lyons, Malcolm Gladwell, and Chelsea Clinton

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