On and off, in one form or another, Gray Kirk VanSant has been Martin Marietta Corp.'s advertising agency since the 1930s. The relationship has outlasted war, peace, countless management changes and several mergers.

Now it may be challenged again.

Martin Marietta's pending merger with Lockheed Corp. could pit Baltimore-based Gray Kirk in a contest for the merged company's business against D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, the Los Angeles agency that Lockheed hired earlier this year.

The dollars at stake aren't huge. Although they're big companies, Calabasas, Calif.-based Lockheed and Bethesda-based Martin have ad budgets that are smaller than ** those of consumer products makers. As defense contractors, Lockheed's and Martin's marketing muscle goes instead into lobbyists and sales forces.

Advertising Age, an industry magazine, estimates Lockheed's annual ad budget to be $10 million. Martin spokesman Charles Manor said his company's ad spending is in the multiple millions but declined to be more specific.

With total annual billings of $98 million, Gray Kirk wouldn't be crippled by losing the Martin account. Even so, "it's a nice piece of business," said Roger Gray, president of Gray Kirk. Losing it would end a Maryland partnership that started more than 60 years ago.

That's when Glenn L. Martin Co. hired VanSant Dugdale & Co. as its ad rep, soon after moving to Eastern Baltimore County from Cleveland in 1929.

Martin's Middle River plant site offered the water access needed for its seaplanes, including the famed "China Clipper," and was the birthplace of thousands of warplanes in World War II.

Then, as now, much of Martin's ad budget went into spots in consumer and business magazines. The idea was to burnish the company's image and prompt name recognition.

Like other airplane makers, Martin reaped a public relations bonanza from its products' war exploits, which VanSant helped to mine.

The B-26 "Marauder" bomber, perhaps Martin's best known plane of the war, was produced in more than 5,000 copies and fought in both the Pacific and European theaters, said William B. Harwood, Martin's former vice president of public relations and the author of Raise Heaven and Earth, a history of the company published last year.

Martin's fortunes declined after the war, and advertising all but vanished, too. Martin merged with American-Marietta Co. in 1961.

Its relationship with VanSant lay dormant from the mid-1950s until the 1970s, when the agency, led by Nicholas VanSant, produced a series of award-winning spots in which the company saluted "excellence" among everyday folk, Mr. Harwood said.

Martin's bruising takeover battle with Bendix Corp. in 1982, in which it managed to stay independent, generated another flurry of "corporate identity" ads. VanSant Dugdale held the account through the 1980s, up to its merger with Gray Kirk in 1991.

The Martin/Lockheed merger, which requires regulators' approval, may hurt business at D'Arcy Masius or Gray Kirk, said Stephen A. Greyser, a professor at Harvard Business School who specializes in corporate communications.

"If it's a true merger. . . where they have a lot of potential for integrating operating divisions, then basically the likelihood is very high that there would be a shrinkage of agencies," he said.

It's possible that units of the combined company could hire separate agencies, he said. But since many of Martin's and Lockheed's spots are "corporate image" ads that don't push a specific product, only one agency is likely to handle those, he said.

"Our intentions are to hang onto that piece of business," Mr. Gray said. "One positive thing is that they are going to be headquartered in Bethesda, and that's our backyard."

Another possible plus for Gray Kirk is that Martin Chairman Norman R. Augustine is expected to become chairman of the combined company in two years.

But "it all depends on who's going to be the key marketing people," Mr. Gray said. "In this business, longevity doesn't mean anything."

Mr. Manor, the Martin spokesman, said it's too early to know what the company's post-merger ad operation will look like. The merger isn't expected to close until early next year, at the soonest, and could get stopped or delayed by government regulators.

Lockheed and D'Arcy Masius officials did not return phone calls.

Whatever happens, Lockheed Martin Corp. would probably boost ad spending after a merger, said Mr. Greyser. "Part of it would be to communicate what this new, combined company means -- from the standpoint of pure identity," he said.

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