Can Chris MacDonald hack it at McCann New York?

April 26, 2013

Chris MacdonaldHaving, a while back, complimented Chris Macdonald on the improved quality of his tailoring, it would be churlish not to congratulate London’s sharpest suit on landing the hot seat at McCann New York, where he will soon become president.

Macdonald, who combines the position of McCann London group chairman with agency chief executive, is one of several senior executives to be reshuffled in the first significant management changes to be made by Harris Diamond, Nick Brien’s replacement as Worldgroup chief executive. In effect, Macdonald is to take up a position that has been – inexplicably in a creative agency –  left vacant for over a year. His predecessor, Thom Gruhler, quit for Microsoft after – like many around him – coming to blows with Brien over his shoot-from-the-hip management style. The seat had in the interim been kept warm by Hank Summy – a Brien hiring with no traditional agency experience – who has now been elegantly side-shifted to the bafflingly esoteric role of president, commerce at Worldgroup’s digital and direct arm, MRM.

Diamond is evidently throwing away the fairy-cycle stabiliser wheels and proving his own man earlier than expected (or perhaps, more accurately, than I had expected).  When he was picked as McCann Worldgroup CEO last November, McCann’s parent Interpublic hit upon the curious expedient of appointing two “handlers” – hemispheric presidents, Luca Lindner and Gustavo Martinez – to babysit the new boy while he learned the ropes. That was wholly understandable, given that Diamond was a former PR man with no experience of creative advertising. But might have sent out the wrong signal to clients: does McCann trust this man to do the job properly, or not?

In the event, the gamble involved in appointing him – he is well-regarded for his EQ – appears to be paying off. Six months into Diamond’s tenure, McCann has seen off Goodby Silverstein, recaptured the front-end of the General Motors pantomime pony; and won US domestic business as well. Quite a reversal of the negative business spiral that had dogged his predecessor’s two-and-a half-year reign.

It’s easy to see why Diamond might have called upon the services of Macdonald. Where his predecessor loved technical complexity, Diamond is all for human simplicity. “This is a straightforward business,” he told AdWeek recently. “If you can come up with great ideas and make an impact on your clients’ business you do well.”

The great idea, so far as Macdonald is concerned, is threefold. First, his London group role since 2008 has given him invaluable experience of breaking down silo walls and making the various parts of the marketing services machine interoperable. Second, Macdonald is very good with big clients, who these past few years have been feeling a bit bruised and under-loved. Third, London has had a good new business record under his stewardship, in contrast to certain other parts of the McCann empire.

But will the Macdonald pixie dust be enough to salvage McCann’s battered global reputation? That is the question observers are asking. Twenty-five years ago, or so, it was relatively easy for a smooth-talking, self-possessed Brit to make it “Over There” after making it over here. Britain’s reputation for advertising creativity and big brand marketing was second to none in the world. And, if that were not recommendation enough, we could also play the consumer and strategic planning card.

That was then. Now, our effortless superiority in those disciplines should not be taken for granted. And besides, the world has moved on in other ways. It’s a grimmer, greyer place. Post-crash, clients are challenged and risk-averse. As one source of mine puts it: “The need to meet quarterly numbers is more important than waving a magic wand of creativity. This is a low- to no-growth environment.” Add to that the complications of procurement, the massive disruption of traditional channels caused by social media, and the fiendish complexity of planning and measuring campaigns these days, and it becomes triply more difficult for any individual, however talented, to achieve cut-through.

McCann has many weaknesses as a creative agency brand, but one of its great strengths over the years has been its knowledge-in-depth of client businesses. That reputation took a knock under Brien. We have yet to find out whether Macdonald is the man to restore it.

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The man who didn’t cause the world’s most infamous marketing disaster dies

March 8, 2013

edselsThe death late last month of Roy Brown Jr, aged 96, is a timely reminder of that old adage: success has many authors; failure but one scapegoat. The reality, as we shall see, is not uncommonly the inverse.

Brown was Ford’s top designer during the Fifties and it was his misfortune to be saddled with historical responsibility for one of the greatest marketing disasters of all time. The Ford Edsel was conceived in 1955, born in the 1958 model year and unceremoniously euthanised in late November 1959. In that time it had cost Ford a record $350m, the equivalent in today’s money of about $2.8tr.

Critics rounded on the controversial “horse collar” or “toilet-seat” chrome grille, in which some amateur psychologists even descried a vulva, as the car’s killer feature. Admittedly, over 50 years later, it’s hard to regard that grille as an aesthetic triumph – but, with hindsight, it’s surely no more than a fairly conventional attribute of the overblown fin-styled float-boats of the time. In any case, Brown was not ultimately responsible for the grille. His concept was a much more restrained vertical opening, perhaps à la Alfa; it was overruled by Ford engineers, who deemed it too narrow for radiator-cooling efficiency.

The wider truth about the Edsel – and the calamity that engulfed it – is that it was not just an automobile style, not just a car, but a range of cars, a new manufacturing division and, most disastrous misconception of all, a market segment that never existed.

In reviewing the consumer boom in 1950s America, Ford market “research” had concluded the car manufacturer was in need of more careful market segmentation. Its top end range – Lincoln and Mercury – was found to be competing – horror of horrors – with more downmarket marques such as Oldsmobile and Buick at General Motors. Solution: push Lincoln further upscale with the new Continental marque, which would compete more credibly with Cadillac. And introduce a new mid-market marque, the Edsel, which would slot in just below Mercury and just above Ford.

Simple, eh? Except Ford senior management then went on to commit a series of textbook marketing errors. The research was fatally flawed: by 1957 middle Americans were tightening their belts as a mini-recession beckoned. If anything, they were looking downmarket, at more value for money. Speaking of which, Ford then committed error number two, it got greedy with its pricing. The new segment competed nearly head on with Mercury, undermining the latter’s perceived value. At the same time, the bottom end of the Edsel range overlapped Ford’s better-equipped and better-value-for-money Fairlane 500.

Error number three was the name. No one had a clue what it should be, so the task was delegated to Edsel’s agency, Foote Cone & Belding – which duly obliged with no less than 6,000 paralysing suggestions, none of which quite did the business. True, four of them – Citation, Corsair, Pacer and Ranger – ended up as model names. But that still left the awkward issue of the umbrella brand unresolved. What then happened almost beggars belief. While Ford chairman Henry Ford II – a known sceptic of the whole brand segmentation idea – was abroad, the board took it upon themselves to name the marque after his father, the oddly-named Edsel – in honour of the Ford family. An unintentional hostage to fortune if ever there was one.

All things considered, the Edsel actually had a reasonable launch. It undershot expectations, but still managed to be one of the biggest model launches to date. From there on in, however, it was rapidly downhill. As the recession bit and sales stalled, the vultures began to circle. Some actually thought the styling and layout of the vehicle (which shared a platform with other Ford marques) was too conventional (!). Others criticised the range for coming up with innovations, such as the Teletouch automatic transmission selector, which were too complex for the consumer of the time. And certainly there were reliability and after-market problems.

robert_mcnamaraGetting the picture? Biffed on all sides, sales tanking; enter Robert McNamara – Hank the Deuce’s axeman. Better known to history as the man who, as Secretary of Defense, thought up the “body-count” as a means of conjuring defeat in Vietnam into victory, in the late Fifties McNamara (left) was a whizz kid consultant at Ford, who shared his chairman’s deeply-held conviction (or was that prejudice?) that Ford was over segmented, and would do well to get back to core brand values. It was death for the new but massively underperforming marque by several strategic cuts – cuts in the marketing and advertising budget; cuts in the production budget and cuts in the management overheads. The separate Edsel division was soon dissolved, but the Edsel itself limped on for a while as rebadged, retrimmed and overpriced Ford models in all but name.

And Roy Brown, the man who got blamed for it in the popular imagination? He lived to fight another day, as chief designer of Ford’s first world-car, the Cortina. Not only that, he kept faith with the Edsel, an immaculate example of which he continued to drive until his dying days.

For Brown’s estate, at any rate, the Edsel will have proved a good investment. Showroom-condition models now achieve prices in excess of $100,000.


Max, Dan, Jerry – 2012’s out-performers

December 14, 2012

League tables of achievement are as commonplace as turkeys right now. Why burden you with another one? Well, I’ve been asked to – by the good folk at More About Advertising. So:

Ad of the Year. Yes, I liked BBH’s “The 3 Little Pigs” and Creative Artist Agency’s Cannes Chipotle winner. Also, Del Campo Nazca Saatchi & Saatchi’s work for – of all improbable B2C clients – air-conditioning specialist BGH. Of which this, directed by Juan Cabral, is the latest instance:

As MAA’s Stephen Foster puts it – “bleakly comic”.

My favourite, though, was “Follow the Frog”, a quirky satire of the desk-bound yuppie eco-warrior fantasising about making the World A Better Place. Writer, director, copywriter, art director is Max Joseph – clearly a bit of an Orson Welles in the making. The commercial was produced by Wander Films, a creative boutique in Los Angeles. The moral? You don’t need to go to the ends of the earth to save the rainforest. Just Follow the Frog by buying kitemark-certified Rainforest Alliance products. They’ll do all the ethical heavy-lifting for you: sustain the forests, uphold socially equitable farming methods, and guarantee that what you buy is economically viable:

It’s long – but isn’t nearly everything these days? The measure of the made-for-internet film is not its length, but how well it sustains our interest. On this criterion Follow the Frog succeeds very well. It’s got a good tale to tell, is directed with panache and enlivened by bold use of graphics. Oh, and it uses gentle humour to camouflage the piety of its evangelical message. Yes “Siri”, it get’s my vote.

Agency of the Year. I won’t beat about the bush: it’s got to be Wieden & Kennedy. International networks frequently produce isolated instances of brilliance (Del Campo being an example within the Saatchi organisation). Exceptional work, simultaneously executed on a number of fronts, is another matter. To take an investment analogy, W&K is a momentum stock outperforming in all its main markets. Whether that’s Clint fronting for Chrysler at the Super Bowl:

… London winning the £110m Tesco account – but also producing some of the most interesting creative work since “Grrr”:

Or Amsterdam’s slick spoof for the latest James Bond film, which neatly segues into its current Heineken campaign:

Person of the Year. Tempting to mention the name of Joel Ewanick, isn’t it? No one can be said to have made a bigger splash in the world of marketing over the past year. Arguably, however, the now-dismissed chief marketing officer of General Motors made headlines for all the wrong reasons. A change agent he certainly was, but were any of his changes for the good? And what sort of permanence will they have? We hacks miss him, but I suspect the wider marketing community will not.

Jerry BuhlmannInstead of anti-hero, therefore, I’ve plumped for a gritty go-getter: marketing services’ answer to Daniel Craig. Like Craig, he certainly wouldn’t be everyone’s first choice as the archetypal smooth operator. But his coolness under fire cannot be doubted. Step forward Jerry Buhlmann, chief executive of Aegis Group plc. If there is one thing archetypal about Jerry, it’s that he’s a self-made media man. He started off in the “five to one” slot, in other words the lowest of the low in the full-service agency hierarchy, at Young & Rubicam in 1980. Nine years later, he was setting up his his own media-buying outfit BBJ – along with ultimately less successful Nick Brien and the downright obscure Colin Jelfs. BBJ – nowadays Vizeum – though successful (it handled for example the BMW account) was originally a “second-string” shop for conflicted WCRS media. Buhlmann’s career really took off when WCRS’s Peter Scott had the inspired idea of acquiring Carat – Europe’s largest media buyer – and floating off the combined operation as a separate stock market entity, rechristened Aegis. Buhlmann and his company were soon swallowed up by the independent media specialist, which offered him much wider career opportunities.

But was he a man capable of capitalising on them? While no one has ever doubted Buhlmann’s single-minded ambition to succeed, a lot have wondered whether he had the competence to do so. Yes, he had a mind like a calculator and razor-sharp commercial acumen, but where, oh where, were those human skills no less essential for making it to the top of the corporate pile? There was much mirth in the senior reaches of the media industry when Buhlmann got his first big break as head of Aegis Media EMEA in 2003. “It’s like William Hague trying to emulate Margaret Thatcher” was a typical response to his promotion. Then, as later, Buhlmann’s critics completely underestimated his ability to learn on the job. When he became group chief executive in 2010, the reception was scarcely less friendly. The master of ‘focus’ and ‘detail’ was incapable of taking the broader view vital to successfully running a publicly-quoted company, it was said. And then there was Jerry’s far-from-diplomatic demeanour: how long before he rubbed the City up the wrong way and had to be dispensed with?

It wasn’t as if Aegis was an easy company to run, either. As a (near) pure-bred media specialist, it was susceptible to squalls in the media every time the inevitable financial scandal broke. Inevitable, because media buying and peculation are bedfellows and peculation distorts financial performance – meaning in Aegis’ case it had to resort to highly public mea culpas every now and then. Other major media outfits, by contrast, have been able to rely on defence in depth from the much bigger marketing services organisations to which they belong.

Not only that, Aegis’s card was marked as a public company. For years, it laboured under the strain of being a takeover or break-up target. The strain became nightmarish when Vincent Bolloré, the shareholder from hell, took a strategic stake in Aegis and began engineering a series of boardroom coups.

Some of the credit for Aegis’ eventual soft-landing – a 50%-premium, £3.2bn cash deal with Dentsu, sealed last June  – must go to Aegis chairman John Napier. But that still leaves a lot owing to Buhlmann himself. Not only did he keep all the plates spinning in difficult circumstances, he also demonstrated a strategic clarity which eluded his predecessors. He ruthlessly pruned the company of its lower-margin research operation (by disposing of Synovate to Ipsos), but at the same time bolstered its pure-play media-buying profile with the geographical add-on of Mitchell Communications.

Not a bad result, all in all, for the man once dubbed the king of the second-string.


Mindshare beats Carat to €150m SFR media-buying and planning account

August 1, 2012

Word reaches me that Aegis’ Carat has just lost one of France’s biggest media accounts to WPP’s Mindshare. SFR, the mobile phone carrier owned by Vivendi, has a media budget of about €150m (£120m). Overall, it is one of France’s biggest advertisers, ahead of Orange, but behind Renault, with a total budget of about €300m.

For WPP, it’s second time lucky. In 2009 a joint-ticket of Mediaedge-CIA and Mediacom got into the final frame of a review, but was seen off by Carat, which has now been the incumbent agency for about 15 years. OMD and Zenith-Optimedia also participated in the 2009 pitch. It is not known whether other agencies were involved in the current one.

SFR, which offers fixed line, mobile and broadband services, spends the biggest part of  its advertising budget on television – about €92m last year. Next comes outdoor, with a spend of €65m, then digital, with €62m.

Separately, Carat will have been shaken by the news that Joel Ewanick, the man responsible for placing General Motors’ $3bn global media account in their hands, has been abruptly fired by his company.

Earlier last week, John Gaffney, who led Carat’s North American General Motors account out of Detroit, quit the media agency. The circumstances surrounding Gaffney’s departure are unclear. Some sources maintain his departure was related to client dissatisfaction with Carat’s performance. Others more directly connected to the situation insist Gaffney’s exit was not directly related to performance on the GM assignment.


Agencies pick over Ewanick’s GM legacy

July 30, 2012

“He failed to meet the expectations that the company has for its employees,” said General Motors spokesman Greg Martin cryptically. That looks like being GM global marketing supremo Joel Ewanick’s epitaph. The marketing whirligig quit abruptly last weekend, after two years at the steering wheel of one of the world’s biggest car companies.

But just what did Martin mean by failed expectations? It appears that Ewanick fell down badly on the small print in the 5-year sponsorship deal he signed with Manchester United. Details remain sketchy, although they will undoubtedly emerge over time. Some financial liability is likely involved should GM fail to deliver on its side of the bargain; this seems to be what Ewanick ‘forgot’ to disclose to his superiors.

GM may be glad to see the back of him, but we hacks will miss Ewanick – with his uncanny ability to manufacture a headline. Here is the man who said ‘No’ to extortionate prime-time Super Bowl advertising; and put two-fingers up to Facebook – commercially speaking – just before it foundered in a very rocky public flotation. The Manchester United sponsorship was to be his masterly counter-coup: Ewanick bringing in the vibrant Old World (China and emerging markets included) to redress a marketing overspend in the tired old New.

Alas, attention to detail seems foreign to Ewanick’s nature. Now we shall never really know whether he was a marketing visionary with a bold grasp of the Big Picture, or simply a publicity-hungry megalomaniac revelling in world-renown.

What matters from here on in is the unpicking of Ewanick’s legacy. Hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue are at stake for the agencies that signed up to the Ewanick dream. Doubtless their lawyers are already assessing the strength of the contracts they co-signed with him. What now for Carat’s tenure of the $3bn global media account? And for Commonwealth, the complex advertising vehicle set up so that Goodby Silverstein and McCann Erickson could jointly service most of the global Chevy creative account? The holding companies of all three agencies – Aegis Group, Omnicom and Interpublic – have already made substantial investments in staffing up in and around Detroit to service the newly streamlined accounts.

Advertising relationships in the auto-industry have traditionally been very personality-driven. Despite a thick coating of metrics-speak in all their public utterances, this has been transcendentally true of Ewanick and his advertising coterie.

Goodby looks particularly vulnerable, given the close personal relationship between Ewanick and Goodby founder Jeff Goodby – who shared the stage at this year’s Cannes International Festival of Creativity.

All eyes will now be on Ewanick’s (at least temporary) successor, Alan Batey, head of US sales and service.

Little is known of him other than that he was once a car mechanic. But of one thing you can be certain. Agencies, on and off the GM roster, will be doing their damnedest to find out more. Just in case.

UPDATE 31/7/12: The problem with the Manchester United shirt sponsorship deal is that Ewanick paid too much, it has emerged. He committed to a 7-year deal at £25m ($39m) a year without disclosing how “full” the terms were to GM’s board. $300m represents a premium of 25% to what the current sponsor, AON, is paying – and is a lot more than Ewanick seems to have implied to his colleagues during negotiation.


Will GM’s Manchester United sponsorship deal shift more Chevies?

May 31, 2012

For years the auto industry has been asking: how long before the Vauxhall marque becomes Opel? Maybe the question now needs rephrasing: how long before Opel becomes Chevrolet?

Certainly Opel becoming – in the fullness of time – Chevrolet would be one logical outcome of the sponsorship deal its owner, General Motors, has just struck with British Premier League football club Manchester United.

But that’s just a side-light on a global marketing communications strategy that actually has very little to do with Europe, where Chevrolet accounts for only 1.5% of total car sales. Symbolically, the sponsorship agreement between GM and Manchester United has been inked in Shanghai. Recent research by Kantar found that over half of Man U’s estimated 659 million fans worldwide are to be found in emerging markets, such as the BRICS. That is exactly where GM is targeting most growth for its prime brand, Chevrolet.

All very fine, you may say. But isn’t this just another example of fame-hungry GM global marketing supremo Joel Ewanick grabbing the headlines? And a costly one too, which may not eventually stack up. After all, what traction does a British football club – even one whose brand has achieved substantial recognition in the rest of the world – have in the market where Chevy currently sells most of its 4.76 million units a year? Not that much really (despite Kantar’s projection of  a 35 million Man U following in the USA – who are these people?).

Some might go even further and claim Ewanick and GM are actually being unpatriotic. What this sponsorship deal is really about is cocking a snook at America’s prime sport, baseball: Ewanick has personally decided that Super Bowl ads are too expensive (at $3.4m for 30 seconds prime time, a not unreasonable point of view) and he’s perversely made his point by concluding  a deal with a sport that cannot have any discernible uplift on US sales in the immediate future. Nor is this an inexpensive gesture. Recent sponsorships deals with Man U have not exactly cost peanuts. In 2010, for example, the club struck an agreement with insurance firm Aon worth £80m ($125m) over 4 years.

There may of course be a grain of truth in these objections. Ewanick’s behaviour is clearly tactical as well as strategic in intent. It is designed, at one level, to bring the Super Bowl ratecard (and let’s throw in the Facebook ratecard while we’re there) to heel by demonstrating there is a marcoms alternative. But a tactic is exactly what it is. My betting is he cannot afford to boycott either platform in the longer run.


Mother’s $600,000 Chevrolet campaign triggers SEC conflict of interest inquiry

May 26, 2012

These days, General Motors advertising seems more adept at making the headlines than selling metal.

Yesterday, GM was forced to report to the Securities and Exchange Commission, which regulates the corporate governance of publicly-quoted companies, that it had inadvertently awarded a $600,000 ad contract to an agency where the wife of GM’s chief financial officer, Dan Ammann, is a partner.

The agency in question is Mother New York, and the brief was Chevrolet’s 100th birthday anniversary (see below), which ran last autumn. Ammann’s wife, Pernilla Ammann, is both a partner and chief operating officer at Mother New York.

Apparently, evidence of a conflict of interest only “popped up” last week when the governance committee of the board of directors was reviewing GM contracts.

GM directors are contractually required to disclose personal ties to outside companies, which Dan Ammann signally failed to do.

Now, I know what you’re going to say. How could GM have committed such an obvious oversight? The clue’s in the name, isn’t it? “Ammann”, on the Mother head sheet, partner, pretty unusual, sounds a bit like our CFO’s. Could they by any chance be related?

But of course, bureaucracies (which is what all multinational companies are) don’t work like that. They don’t make lateral connections; they function efficiently only in silos. So, though it took GM a long time to recognise the oversight, and though the oversight is worrying in itself, the fact that it happened should not surprise us.

What I’m more interested in is what Mrs Ammann was doing all this time (apart from keeping mum). Did she never mention over the K Flakes: “Honey, the strangest thing happened. Your company has just offered our agency a nice little advertising brief”? Admittedly she may not have worked on the brief, but she must have known about it. It would have been irresponsible of an agency COO not to have. After all, one of her jobs is to handle legal issues and “contract negotiations”, according to the agency website. One thing is for certain: she can hardly have been so naive that she didn’t know what constitutes a conflict of interest.

Maybe she’s estranged from her husband. Maybe she doesn’t talk to him at breakfast, or at any other time. In which case, I think we should be told.

In any case, there’s always email.


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