NEW YORK — Laird + Partners, the ad agency based here that handles Donna Karan International and Gap, has another all-American account: Nautica.

This story first appeared in the March 14, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Laird + Partners bested incumbent Toth Brand Imaging, the Concord, Mass.-based ad agency that handled the account the past four years, as well as Lipman, the New York ad agency.

“Our work was good and we’re thankful for the opportunity. But change is good sometimes,” said Mike Toth, president of Toth Brand Imaging. “We increased [overall] sales 25 percent over four years.”

Laird’s new assignment will begin with the fall advertising campaign. It encompasses the Nautica brand, Nautica Jeans and Nautica Competition. Media will continue to be handled by Nautica’s in-house media department.

A Nautica spokeswoman declined comment on its annual advertising budget, but sources estimated it to be in excess of $20 million.

Don Witkowski, president of Nautica International, previously worked with Laird when Witkowski was president of Donna Karan Menswear. Witkowski was unavailable for comment Thursday.

David Chu, Nautica’s founder, vice chairman and designer, said about the agency change: “We’ve been thinking about the evolution of the brand. Mike [Toth] did a good job and evolved our position. It’s time to continue to evolve it. Trey will give me additional ideas for a combination of new projects.” Chu said one of the priorities is developing a Nautica women’s line. He also said Laird will be the “power point” advertising person for all products bearing the Nautica label.

“The brand continues to grow even during this difficult economy,” added Chu, citing strong business in the home area, as well as other licensed products. Through its licensing agreement with Unilever Prestige, it launched a new men’s Nautica Competition fragrance this month at retail, as reported.

Trey Laird, president and executive creative director of Laird + Partners, told WWD: “To me, what’s really important is that the brand stay true to its heritage. When Nautica first came out, its strength was rooted in its strong connection to water, it was active-inspired and full of color and energy that a real guy could relate to. That needs to be sharpened. It wasn’t about a runway fashionista, but real men’s clothes for a real man’s life.”

Nautica, which had sales of $692.1 million for the fiscal year ended March 2, 2002, has taken some hits in profitability lately. A highly promotional retail environment, a one-time write-off for its Rockefeller Plaza store and a weakness in its women’s jeans forced Nautica’s third-quarter net income for the period ended Nov. 30, to plunge 46.5 percent to $7.3 million. That compares with last year’s earnings of $13.6 million, or 40 cents.

Sales for the period inched up 3 percent to $207.1 million from $201 million a year ago. For the first nine months of the year, Nautica’s net earnings sank 41.2 percent to $15.1 million. That compares with last year’s profits of $25.7 million, or 75 cents. Sales for the period declined 3.4 percent to $515.2 million from $535.5 million a year ago.

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