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Sorrell warns Lévy against buying Chinese agency Oriental & Rende

February 28, 2012

In an extraordinary new twist to the Oriental & Rende story I posted the other day, WPP chief executive Sir Martin Sorrell has written to his counterpart at Publicis Groupe, Maurice Lévy, warning him of the dangers of acquiring the Chinese specialist car agency.

Last year, I’m told, WPP subsidiary Ogilvy broke off acquisition talks with O&R after it emerged that the agency – whose main client is VW, Mercedes and Hyundai joint-venture partner FAW – was operating both outside Chinese law and accepted ethical practices. The problem seems to involve under-the-table payments, totalling several million dollars a year, which are being paid to the client management in order to retain business.

It is believed that, in his letter, Sorrell appealed to Lévy’s sense of fair play and emphasised the need for a corruption-free level-playing field in the international advertising business.

Corruption, knowingly or unknowingly, committed in foreign markets is now a major corporate headache. Under section 7 of the UK Bribery Act 2010, it is an offence for commercial organisations registered in the UK, or carrying out business there, to fail to prevent bribery taking place. The burden of proof is on the indicted company to demonstrate that it had adequate anti-corruption controls in place at the time of the offence’s commission. Punishment on conviction ranges up to a 10-year prison sentence and unlimited fines. France has similarly tough anti-corruption legislation governing overseas subsidiaries, involving heavy fines and potential imprisonment.

Whether Sorrell’s letter – to which Lévy is believed to have replied – will have any impact on PG’s decision to buy O&R remains to be seen.

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Publicis Groupe moots deal with Chinese auto specialist agency Oriental & Rende

February 25, 2012

You’ve got to admire the mettle of the man. Publicis Groupe chief executive Maurice Lévy may have his hands full with a corruption scandal at Betterway, one of PG’s principal Chinese subsidiaries, but his appetite for acquisitions in that part of the world is undiminished.

It has come to my attention that PG is close to striking a deal with a Beijing agency called Oriental & Rende. Never heard of it? I’m not altogether surprised. It’s a smallish specialised agency with revenue estimated at $10m in 2011. But don’t underestimate its strategic significance. This is a way into the booming “Made in China” car business. O&R does what used to be called through-the-line work (advertising, PR, events etc) for many of the Chinese automobile joint-venture companies. Its biggest client by far is FAW, which is allied to VW, Mercedes and Hyundai.

It is believed that WPP earlier showed interest in acquiring O&R but, for reasons which are not yet apparent, decided to pull out of discussions.


Why Joel Ewanick’s Apple comparison is just pie in the sky for General Motors

August 24, 2011

“Feisty” is the word that most often comes to mind when describing General Motors global chief marketing officer Joel Ewanick.

Since arriving from Hyundai (where he held a similar position) last year, the man seems to have barely slept as he implements a whirlwind catalogue of changes. This month alone, while others absent themselves on their summer vacation, Ewanick has reorganised his marketing department and called a review of the $3bn GM global media account.

But restless energy – commendable though it is – should not be mistaken for vision. The limits of Ewanick’s intellectual rigour, although not his soaring ambition, were also on display earlier this month – at GM’s second annual Global Business Conference.

In it, Ewanick made the extraordinary declaration that his goal is to transform GM not into a better car company, but a future Apple.

Nor was this just a rhetorical trope dished out to a friendly audience. He’s deadly serious. “It’s time,” Ewanick said, “To clearly differentiate our brand and align closer to a true global brand like Apple. It’s time for an automotive company to step out and address consumers and their needs in a way that’s never been done before.”

Admirable sentiments of course. But just what does he mean? Technological innovation is integral  to selling cars, but that doesn’t mean the motor sector is in any way comparable to Silicon Valley. And even if it were, rust-belt Motown marques, with their high social costs and Chapter 11 legacy, are not where you would start. Ironically, in fact, the US car brand with the most potential for eye-catching product innovation and design is not American at all: it’s one whose marketing Ewanick has already captained – Hyundai.

But if the future is elsewhere, Ewanick has, in a curious way, scored a debating point about the past. GM is comparable with Apple: but only in the past tense. Back in the fifties, when Americana and US global power were at their height, a new Chevvie or Cadillac was a potent symbol of the consumer dream. It encapsulated the freedom to travel anytime, anywhere worth travelling to, on the interstate highway. So potent was this dream that GM – like Apple today – was the world’s biggest company by market capitalisation. It even became a mantra in US foreign policy: “What’s good for GM is good for America.”

No chance of recapturing that distant eminence, now or in the future. Cars are simply not the must-have consumer products they once were; even in fast-growing economies like China’s – where they may well be viewed as status symbols, but not on the level of fifties America. Who, on the other hand, would not break their neck to acquire the latest Apple iPhone?

It’s possible, of course, that I have misunderstood Ewanick’s apparently ludicrous aspiration. All he was really talking about was the much more modest goal of creating brands with universally accepted global appeal. I don’t think so, though.

What’s certain is that neither Ewanick nor his boss, GM CEO Dan Akerson, is the next Steve Jobs – despite the superficial brand-turnaround comparison.


Regulator cracks down on car makers living in Cloud Cuckoo land

June 11, 2011

The time when the car was simply an internal combustion engine on four rubber tyres that got you from A to B has long since passed. Now it’s a mobile computer, equipped with cloud technology that maps your route automatically, gives you business listings, traffic information, sports news, stock market prices, local petrol station locations, cinema listings, reads out your email and text messages, and much more besides.

No self-respecting car marque is without its patent system. Ford has Sync, General Motors has OnStar. And even Hyundai is about to bring out its own market-challenging product, Blue Link – whose maker ATX also supplies BMW and Toyota.

Hyundai Velostar: One of the first models to get the Blue Link cloud technology launched next year

It’s easy to see why they are so popular. Customers love the gadgets, the systems give the car brand an extra cutting edge, and there’s a tasty aftermarket as well. Some car-makers charge a hefty annual rental for the services. OnStar, for example, costs up to $300. And, while we’re there, let’s not forget the commercial value of local search and location-finding services. Groupons at your local service station anyone?

Unfortunately, automobile telematics – as they are known in the business – are also killers. The top US safety regulator, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, reckons that every year thousands of motorists and their passengers end up in the morgue because of needless driver distraction. And what’s more it intends to douse the white heat of technological advancement with some very cold water.

Like Daniel striding among the lions, the NHTSA’s top man David Strickland chose the Telematics Detroit 2011 conference to put this unholy alliance of car and software manufacturers on notice:

“A car is not a mobile device… I’m not in the business of helping people Tweet better… We will not take a backseat while new telematics and infotainment systems are introduced. There is too much distraction of drivers,” he told a dismayed audience.

Wherever the regulator in the top automotive market goes, you can be sure the rest of the world will soon follow.


Buckle your safety belts: GM has put Joel Ewanick in the global driving seat

December 21, 2010

You’ll have to forgive me. Unlike former Porsche marketer Joel Ewanick, I don’t live in the fast-lane – meaning, I’ve just caught up with the news that he has been appointed to the new position of global chief marketing officer, General Motors.

Even by his standards, that was quick work. He only joined the organisation eight months ago as US vice president marketing, after a brief and apparently stormy sojourn at Nissan. But what an eight months that’s been. The relentless cutting-edge of the whirling dervish has left no department intact, no slogan unchallenged, no strategy unexamined, no agency relationship unmarked. Most notoriously, it will be recalled, he summarily despatched Publicis Worldwide only weeks after it had won the $700m Chevrolet account, and replaced it with (off-roster but on-message, so far as Ewanick is concerned) Goodby Silverstein & Partners. Then, judging perhaps that he had gratuitously made an enemy of one of the most powerful admen in the world, he placated Maurice Lévy by firing BBH from $270m Cadillac and giving the business to Fallon instead. I’m sure there were other reasons for this move: but it cannot be entirely coincidental that Fallon is wholly owned by Publicis Groupe, of which Lévy is the ceo, whereas BBH is only 49% owned by the same company. More money, then, into the main exchequer.

Any way, back to Ewanick. There are at least two, not entirely contradictory, ways of looking at his brand of marketing management; the success of his current appointment will depend on which is uppermost.

The first we have already seen: the change agent on steroids who will stop at nothing to become the world’s most famous car-marketer, in a vainglorious attempt to salvage the apparently unsalvageable: GM’s reputation.

The second is a man with an indisputable reputation for turning around troubled car marques. He did it at Porsche Cars North America during the nineties (no fly-by-nighter there – he stayed nearly nine years as general manager marketing); and he did it again during his 3-year stint as head of marketing at Hyundai North America. Hyundai is now – arguably – America’s most successful car brand.

In this new role we’re going to discover whether success has gone to Ewanick’s head or not. According to the man who appointed him, GM CEO Dan Akerson (himself a new kid on the managerial block), he “will ensure consistent global messaging fro all brands including Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, GMC, Holden, Opel and Vauxhall. Ewanick will provide oversight for global brand enhancements in the markets in which they are sold and work in association with the regional presidents in countries where GM has partnerships and joint ventures.”

The key regional bosses we are talking about here are the ones with dominion in Britain (Vauxhall), Australia (Holden) and Germany (Opel) – Ewanick already controls the rest. And the key issue is how much these brands desire, or even require, “consistent global messaging” – still less an American-centric version of it. Let’s not forget that these were the successful bits, devolved from GM’s incompetent Detroit management – the bits that didn’t have to go into Chapter 11 a while back. I wonder whether Ewanick has the forbearance to acknowledge that. Somehow, I can’t imagine tact is his number one quality.

Whatever happens, it’s going to be an interesting ride for GM’s European roster agencies. DLKW Lowe, McCann Erickson, Scholz & Friends and Amsterdam Worldwide, fasten your seat belts.


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