As banks try to raise revenue and improve their reputations, they are shaking up their relationships with the "mad men" of Wall Street, testing out new advertising to help refurbish their brands.
Several large banks, including Bank of America (BAC), Fifth Third (FITB) and KeyCorp (KEY), have switched ad agencies over the past year for some or all of their business. Now past the worst of the financial crisis, bankers are taking the time — and spending the money — to try to improve how their customers see them and their besmirched industry.
"Obviously there's a lot of change going on in banking, and we had engaged in a lot of introspection ourselves coming out of the financial crisis — what we stood for, how we believed we were going to compete successfully," Larry Magnesen, chief marketing officer at Fifth Third, said in an interview this month.
"The landscape changed, and some competitors disappeared entirely." At Fifth Third "we decided to evaluate our strategic communications partner," he added.
Fifth Third announced in August 2011 that the prominent Leo Burnett would became its main agency, taking over for Olson, an independent shop in Minneapolis. Magnesen says Fifth Third, of Cincinnati, was looking for an agency that was more accomplished in "newer disciplines," including social media, and one that emphasizes the customer experience.
Leo Burnett doesn't "diminish the importance of advertising, but what they emphasize is that the acts you engage in, the behaviors of people, particularly in a services business, are in many cases more powerful in driving home a brand message than just communications alone," Magnesen says.
Other large financial institutions, including Citigroup (NYSE: C) and American Express (AXP), are reported to have conducted agency reviews in recent months, while Bank of America, Ally Financial and BNY Mellon (BK) have all switched partners.
While some advertiser shuffling is par for the course, marketing experts say the pace of bank-agency breakups has increased in recent months.
"There's always a fair amount of turnover, but to have four or five of them in play at the same time is pretty unusual," says Campbell Edlund, president of EMI Strategic Marketing.
Kevin Tracey, founder of the financial services marketing firm Tracey Communications, estimates that the "average life span of an advertiser relationship" has diminished rapidly over the last couple of decades, down to less than three years. In the 1980s such relationships lasted roughly seven years on average, he says.
"The opportunity to see something that's fresh and exciting causes companies to change often," he says.
Edlund predicts that a few more banks will switch agency partners by the end of the year.
Former B of A agency "BBDO I'm sure is hunting," she says. "They just lost a big account from a brand perspective, and I'm sure they're out looking for a big bank. And the same will happen at Citi if they move from their incumbent."
Some brand experts are skeptical that such frequent changes pay off, especially when banks are facing deeper, prolonged reputation problems. For example, B of A launched a new advertising campaign in the fall, but failed to dispel customer outrage over the bank's plans to start charging debit card fees.
"The blame game that results in agency changes is epidemic here," says Tom Dougherty, chief executive of the brand consultancy Stealing Share. "Banks on average change agencies every two years, and they end up with the exact same solution — a new ad campaign that talks about the same things in slightly different ways."