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It's Reebok Out And Nissan In

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For more than 25 years, Chiat/Day Inc. has hung on to its image as the archetypal West Coast shop--brilliantly creative, if a bit quirky and undisciplined. The Venice (Calif.) firm also is known for advertising that spotlights itself over the client's product, for favoring razzle-dazzle over marketing depth and discipline--and for losing its clients. These days, though, the ad world is talking about Chiat's uncanny ability to bounce back from adversity.

The latest crisis struck Chiat/Day's New York office. On Sept. 14, Reebok International Ltd. abruptly fired Chiat/Day, handing the $80 million in U.S. billings to Chicago rival Leo Burnett Co. Six days later, Chiat/Day took out provocative full-page ads in the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times. "Now we know how Dan felt," they read, referring to Olympic hopeful Dan O'Brien, who starred in a $30 million Reebok campaign last year and then failed to qualify for the U.S. decathlon team. O'Brien later shattered a world record. Chiat's ad ends: "You haven't heard the last of us, either."

Then, serendipity. The day the ad ran, Nynex Corp. consolidated all of its media buying at Chiat/Day. Income from the new activities will replace about half the Reebok business, says Chairman Jay Chiat. The agency is also a finalist for IBM Personal Computer Co.'s $40 million U.S. account, to be awarded in October.

"It's remarkable," says James K. Agnew, who heads advertising startup iPlus+ Inc. in Santa Monica, Calif. "Every time they lose a string of business, they manage to immediately replace it." Adds Guy Day, who split with Chiat and left the agency in 1986: "It has to do with Jay's approach to getting whacked: That's when he's at his very best."

LOCAL HERO. Chiat has had lots of practice at both. Last year, his New York operation lost $80 million in business from Lehman Brothers and its parent, American Express Co. But in November, the agency landed the prestigious Infiniti luxury car account--$90 million in billings. Parent Nissan Motor Corp. USA now accounts for more than 40% of Chiat/Day's estimated $850 million in billings.

Reebok was happy with Chiat/Day's work and expects to use its Planet Reebok campaign through 1994 "and beyond," says David G. Ropes, Reebok vice-president. The problem: while Chiat/Day had created Reebok's first global campaign, it didn't have the worldwide resources to service it, Ropes says. Ironically, Chiat abandoned an attempt to go global last November, selling its once prized Australian shop, Mojo, to Foote, Cone & Belding. Mojo, acquired in 1989, was the linchpin in a plan to turn Chiat into a full-service, worldwide contender.

But Chiat may be able to do just fine as a domestic shop. Its unusual ad has already resulted in some "interesting" calls, Chiat claims, including one from a sports-apparel company. No, not Nike, he says. Hmmm. "Planet Converse"? "Planet Adidas"? Stay tuned.Larry Armstrong in Los Angeles, with Geoffrey Smith in Boston

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