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.

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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.


Forget General Motors – Nielsen’s online currency metric will bail out Facebook

May 22, 2012

With Facebook’s share price in an 11% freefall (when I last looked), thank goodness for OCR. That’s what I say. And maybe it’s the mantra nervous Facebook investors should be chanting, too.

OCR? No not Optical Character Recognition, silly – Online Campaign Ratings. It’s the new Nielsen media metric with which the research giant hopes to corner the elusive online ‘currency’ market. And it’s being backed by one of the ad industry’s biggest traders, WPP’s GroupM – which is a good start if OCR is to gain credibility.

Acquiring a universally accepted trading ‘currency’ – sometimes referred to as a “gold standard” – is an important breakthrough for a new medium. No matter how fast it has been growing, or how trendy it has become, its effectiveness will be (rightly) disputed by advertisers and media traders alike in the absence of any agreed benchmark. The result being a tethered and volatile ratecard.

It might seem a fine distinction, but there is a world of difference between what we have at the moment – which is a medium whose value is defined by analytics – and one which is regulated by currency. Analytics are proprietary: they do not command universal respect and are therefore open to debate. The finer points of currency may certainly be subject to academic criticism (look at the BARB ratings system governing UK commercial TV) but no advertiser or trader seriously questions its status. If they did, we might have a pocket version of the euro-crisis on our hands.

With a currency in place, a behavioural change takes place in trading. The key word is “guarantee”. In the network TV market, for example, all three elements to the media deal – media owner, advertiser and trader – have sufficient confidence in the system to make “upfront” or forward commitments into the future, usually a year ahead. The guarantee is the delivery of a specific kind of  audience in sufficient numbers; failing which, a financial penalty will be imposed on the media owner and, increasingly, on the trader.

In that sense, AOL’s recent decision to offer guarantees on online advertising delivery, covering certain agreed demographics such as age, gender and social type, was highly significant.

As is GroupM’s proposal to make joint TV-digital “upfront” buys, the plan being to compensate any shortfall on the TV-side with OCR-defined ratings acquired from digital platforms.

So what has all this got to do with the Facebook share price? With over 900 million registered users, among them half the population of America, Facebook forms the backbone of the online display advertising market. No advertiser can easily afford to leave it off the schedule. Dean Evans, chief marketing officer of Subaru of America, is typical in his attitude: “If half the US population is on Facebook, you have to work it to learn it.” Hence Nielsen’s decision to make Facebook data its OCR “tentpole”.

But what if one of the world’s biggest advertisers defies the orthodoxy, and pulls out of Facebook display – what then? There’s no doubt that General Motors’ announcement last week has had a profoundly destabilising effect on Facebook, all the more so as it came shortly before the much-hyped market flotation.

Actually, GM spends very little of its advertising budget on Facebook display: about $10m a year out of an estimated $3bn. Indeed, it spends more on its Facebook pages ($30m a year in content provision), to which it says it is still firmly committed. But that’s not the point. What if other advertisers, taking GM’s lead, start a Gadarene rush to the Facebook exit? GM’s announcement has, in a nutshell, reinforced a growing conviction within the investment community that the Facebook IPO is “Muppets’ bait” (to use Business Insider founder Henry Blodget’s singular phrase).

In point of fact, many fellow advertisers (particularly those in the auto industry) see GM’s surprise move as motivated less by an ideological stance on Facebook display ratings than by its global chief marketing officer’s desperate determination to wring $2bn out of marketing costs over 5 years. Joel Ewanick (for it is he) has a well-attuned eye for catchy headlines, and few could have been more catchy – as the lengthy piece in the Wall Street Journal clearly demonstrated – than his bombshell last week before the IPO.

But now that the second shoe has dropped, we have a better idea of what Ewanick is up to. He has just announced (to his favourite journalists at the WSJ again) – and presumably at his new media agency Carat’s behest – that the Super Bowl is way too expensive as well, and he won’t be participating in that either. Some doubt that he means exactly what he says. They believe he will only pass on the Super Bowl in the sense that Nike passes on the World Cup. But let’s put that aside for now. Taken at face value, what Ewanick is telling us is that neither Facebook nor the Super Bowl sell enough GM vehicles, because they are both massively overpriced.

That may well be trivially true. But display advertising has never been simply about shifting metal (or any other branded product for that matter). It’s also about maintaining and propagating your image. The question for Ewanick is not whether he can afford to skip Facebook and the Super Bowl, but for how long.


McCann and Goodby to work together on global Chevy brief, but how harmoniously?

March 28, 2012

Once again, General Motors CMO Joel Ewanick has demonstrated his ability to surprise and to innovate, with the announcement of his “Commonwealth” solution to the global Chevrolet creative account.

GM spent $4.7bn on advertising last year, and the majority of that was channelled through Chevy, a brand accounting for 70% of GM’s US sales. So, all eyes will be on what Ewanick, after much agonising, has done with one of the world’s largest creative accounts.

Which is, exactly? The easy bit is that he has fired most of the 70 agencies that were, somehow, somewhere, working on the account – superfluously bloating management and production costs.

More controversially, Ewanick has placed the two winning agencies, Goodby Silverstein & Partners and McCann Erickson, in a joint venture dubbed Commonwealth. It will be based in Detroit, home of GM, but have 3 other creative hubs dotted across the globe at Milan, Mumbai and Sao Paolo. And the controversial bit is that the two agencies – Goodby, which holds the Chevy business in the USA, and McCann, which is strong in Latin America, Mexico, China and Canada – are owned by rival ad holding companies, Omnicom and Interpublic Group respectively. Omnicom and IPG are 50/50 owners of Commonwealth, we are told, but profits will be allocated “geographically”.

That in itself may be cause for friction. But just as interesting is who and what will be running Commonwealth day to day. It is to be led by an eight-strong “global advisory board”, overseeing creative initiatives and strategy, which consists principally of Jeff Goodby, the Goodby Silverstein & Partners founder, who will be creative chairman, Washington Olivetto, McCann Worldgroup Latin America chairman and chief creative officer, Linus Karlsson, the McCann New York and London chairman, and chief creative officer and Prasoon Joshi, the chairman of McCann Worldgroup India. A hat-tip to Goodby’s creative eminence, but note McCann’s dominance on the board.

Now, before muttering “sacks” and “cats”, let’s all take a deep breath and peer long and carefully into the glass half-full. There certainly is a rational case for Commonwealth, or something very like it. And part of it is saving an estimated $2bn in production and management costs over 5 years.

What’s more, we can expect some unwonted co-operative zeal from the two rival agencies. Both will be hugely relieved they have landed the business.

Goodby started as early favourite, not least because it was hand-picked for the US business by Ewanick himself. But  the work has disappointed. And, despite the pleasing publicity surrounding the Ford-knocking Silverado spots at this year’s Super Bowl, there have been gnawing doubts at the Goodby office about the agency’s ability to retain the account.

McCann, on the other hand, desperately needed a coup of any kind to stabilise its faltering performance. True, this is not the outright win that leaves it the undisputed global agency of record earlier rumoured. But it’s a fairly decent outcome, which consolidates McCann’s already strong position in high-growth emerging markets.

But once the novelty has worn off, what then? Will the creative dream-team pull together to make Chevrolet’s global message more consistent, or will the nightmare of agency politics take over? It’s anyone guess. For that very reason Ewanick should be taken at his word in describing Commonwealth as “historic”. We’ll find out soon enough how deep Chevy really runs.


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