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Citizens narrows choice on ad agencies

By Johnny Diaz
Globe Staff / November 5, 2009

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Citizens Financial Group said yesterday it has selected five finalists in its search for a new ad agency, only one of which is in Boston. The news comes a week after Boston-based Arnold Worldwide said it would not compete for the advertising business that it has handled since 2001.

Citizens Financial, based in Providence and Boston’s second-largest retail banking institution, said that it whittled down a list of 15 companies in its advertising review process to New York agencies Draftfcb, Grey Advertising, Ogilvy & Mather, Young & Rubicam, and Boston-based Mullen. The review process, which is being overseen by Boston-based management consulting firm Pile and Co., is expected to be completed in December.

Theresa McLaughlin, Citizens’ chief marketing officer, was not immediately available for comment yesterday but said in a statement that the company remains “focused on identifying the right agency to fuel our next phase of growth.’’

The move ends an eight-year relationship that some advertising observers say has been successful for Citizens. When Arnold became Citizens ad firm, the agency emphasized the bank’s customer service with ads that featured true stories. One series of ads was called “Something One Good Citizen Does For Another’’ and sought to promote the idea of how customers can get an early start on saving for college tuition and home purchases.

“Arnold did a wonderful job branding Citizens as a bank that cares about its customers when it began working with them,’’ said Chris Cakebread, an advertising professor at Boston University.

But, advertising industry watchers say, creative differences can prompt an agency to decide against participating in its client’s review process.

Fran Kelly, chief executive of Arnold Worldwide, did not immediately return calls seeking comment yesterday, but said in a statement: “When the review was announced, it became clear to us that there were other options for Arnold.’’

Arnold also lost at least two clients this year - RadioShack Corp. and Choice Hotels International Inc. It is unclear how big the Citizens account was for Arnold, which is a unit of Paris-based Havas Advertising, the world’s seventh-largest communications group according to Advertising Age. Arnold still creates advertisements for such titans as McDonald’s Corp.

Citizens, which earlier this week said that it would remain part of troubled UK bank Royal Bank of Scotland Group after concluding intense negotiations with financial regulators, does not rank among the top 200 ad spenders nationally, according to Advertising Age. But it’s one of the country’s largest banking institutions and would make a lucrative addition to an ad company’s portfolio, observers say.

“This is a time in the advertising world when advertisers are just beginning to spend again,’’ said Geoff Klapisch, a Boston University advertising professor. “This is a significant piece of business. Citizens has the attention of five major league agencies. Agencies are hungry, and Citizens is taking an active position that they want to be in the marketplace.’’

Joe Grimaldi, chief executive of Mullen, which recently signed the Boston Bruins as a new client, said Citizens’ business would be a big score for the agency.

“Citizens is considered a significant account,’’ said Grimaldi. “And they’ve drawn some very good players in the review. We’re delighted to be considered by a bank that has done a terrific job of building their brand and their business in the last decade.’’

Johnny Diaz can be reached at jodiaz@globe.com.