ET faces axe in BT creative overhaul

ET, Steven Spielberg's friendly alien, is facing the axe from BT's advertising as the telecoms company debates whether the contract with his creators should be renewed.

BT must make its decision by the end of the year. Industry sources rate the prospects of ET, which is the focal point of most of BT's pounds 120 million adspend, being retained as no more than 50-50.

The question-mark over ET comes as BT chiefs consider recommendations from their three roster agencies - Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, St Luke's and M&C Saatchi - about what they could do to counter criticism aimed at its chief executive, Sir Peter Bonfield, and its underperforming share price.

The ET contract presents BT with a major dilemma. Should it end its association with the character now and acknowledge criticism that the ET campaign devised by AMV has run out of steam?

Or should it sign a new long-term deal with Universal Studios and Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment to capitalise on what is likely to be a massive upsurge of interest in ET when Spielberg releases his reworked version of the 18-year-old film in 2002?

'It would be barmy to renew the contract for a year without an option to extend it because BT certainly wouldn't want to miss out on 2002,' an insider said. 'But to renew for another two or three years might cost millions of pounds.'

BT confirmed this week that ET's future was under discussion. 'Nothing stands still and if we weren't addressing this issue, we'd deserve to be shot,' a senior executive said. 'But we've not yet reached a conclusion.'

AMV's re-appointment 20 months ago raised doubts about whether the agency could keep the ET idea fresh through some 40 commercials a year together with supporting print work. 'It's true the campaign has been a creative mixed bag,' someone closely involved with the advertising said. 'But in terms of raising awareness, it's worked well.'

However, BT must decide if ET is still as relevant as when he first appeared now that the company has many different communications offerings.

This fragmentation has led BT to call for proposals from its agencies on how it can show the investment community and opinion formers that it remains a cohesive operation despite its division into a number of autonomous units.

But BT insisted no decision about running corporate advertising would be taken until an internal shake-up, the biggest since privatisation, had been completed.

The reorganisation involves a restructure of its business based on activity rather than geography.