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.
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.