What Leo Burnett Has in Store for AOL

What do you do with a brand most people think of as your mother’s Internet? If you’re Leo Burnett USA, you call attention to that fact and then embellish on it.

The agency behind mid-century icons like Pillsbury’s Doughboy and Marlboro’s craggy cowpoke has been tasked with breathing new life into the AOL brand ahead of its public spin-off from Time Warner in Q4.

Its appointment followed a lightning-fast review process involving five other agencies — a mix of large strategic branding firms like Leo Burnett and small design groups. AOL gave participants 10 business days to respond to the brief. It then took another week to review the pitches and seek clarification on each proposal. The proposals were largely strategic in nature and lacked much creative work — a result of the truncated process.

Publicis-owned Leo Burnett won out because its pitch closely matched the vision held by Tim Armstrong and AOL’s other leadership, said AOL Chief Operating Officer Kim Partoll. It also assured AOL dozens of staffers were eager to start work on the project, and promised that senior agency leadership will helm the account.

“Leo captured for us the most comprehensive proposal for how to address the AOL brand from its past to its current position in the marketplace,” said Partoll.

In response to a question, Rich Stoddart, president of Leo Burnett USA, said, “AOL is the brand that introduced your mother and yourself to the possibilities of the Internet. You’ve got a leadership team at AOL that wants to be aggressive about taking that and moving it forward into a sense of relevance.”

In addition to projecting a strong bearing for the brand, the campaign will also connect AOL with its various unbranded products — for instance MapQuest, suggested Partoll. She said user research has found warm associations with MapQuest and AOL’s other differently branded products.

Stoddart added, “The perception clinging to them [that AOL is a fading Web giant] — that is not the truth. The brand is incredibly relevant and powerful and has assets that engage millions of people every moment.”

AOL’s branding effort isn’t limited to consumer messaging, according to Partoll. B2B, analyst, and investor communications are also in the works.

Leo Burnett USA has already begun work on a refreshed logo and other messaging. Agency and client are in talks about a possible media campaign that “may or may not materialize,” according to Partoll. Video, marketing sites, and other creative efforts are also part of the brief.

The first phase of work will appear by mid-October. That’s when AOL is expected to execute its public offering.

After its spin-off from Time Warner, AOL will consist of AOL.com and other content sites; the Advertising.com ad network unit; products such as AOL Instant Messenger, e-mail and MapQuest; and a product incubator, AOL Ventures technology. The company will also continue to run its shrinking access business.

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