United Colors of Benetton, one of the most controversial advertisers of the past two decades, is planning to appoint its first advertising agency in a bid to overturn a recent decline in fortunes.
The move marks a massive change in direction for the retailer, which is looking to replace the politics-heavy brand advertising for which it is famous with a hard-working, product-led campaign.
Benetton is believed to have cut a shortlist of four agencies down to two: TBWA\London and Drugstore.
TBWA needs a Benetton-style account after losing its long-term client French Connection UK, which followed the former TBWA chairman Trevor Beattie out of the agency earlier this year.
Benetton has decided the "United Colours of Benetton" work of old has not got what it takes to cut through the current retail slump. It issued a profit warning and suffered a 12 per cent drop in share price earlier this year.
Over the past 20 years, Benetton has relied on in-house communications and the research centre Fabrica to produce its creative work. During the 80s and 90s, the company became synonymous with shock advertising. This strategy launched in 1982, when Benetton began its long association with the Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani. He was responsible for Benetton's controversial press and poster executions, which featured images such as a human heart, a dying Aids patient and a dead soldier's blood-smattered uniform.
In 1998, Benetton launched a campaign featuring the faces of inmates on death row - images that so enraged the US retailer Sears Roebuck & Co that it refused to stock Benetton clothes in any of its 400 US stores.
The campaign also fell foul of the state of Missouri, which filed a lawsuit claiming Benetton had deceived its officials into letting it use inmates for advertising.
Shortly after this incident, Toscani and Benetton parted company. Toscani was eventually replaced in 2003 by the Swedish art director Joel Berg.
No-one at Benetton was available for comment.
- Comment, page 52.