VW Fires Its Ad Agency. Drives Into Hot Shop Crispin Porter.

David Kiley

For all the talk from advertisers about measuring return on investment and holding ad agencies accountable, sometimes the success of a client-agency relationship just boils down to the relationship between people.

Volkswagen of America on Tuesday announced it fired its ad agency of nearly a decade, Arnold Worldwide of Boston, and named hot Miami agency, Crispin Porter + Bogusky (MINI and Subservient Chicken) to handle its $417 million account. Crispin had the inside track since VW hired former MINI marketing communications director Kerri Martin last year.

To be fair, a change in ad agency may have been overdue. VW's sales have been tanking. And while that's not the ad agency's fault, the fact is that VW hasn't generated a real water-cooler ad (one that really gets talked about among co-workers or gets written up in blogs or ad columns) in about four years.

Arnold suffers from comparisons with its own work. From 1996 to 2000, Arnold did brilliant work. There was the infamous "Da Da Da" TV spot that showed two college-aged buddies cruising around town in a VW Golf with no apparent purpose in mind to the song, "Da Da Da," by Trio. Eventually, the duo put a chair they spotted at the curbside in the back of the car, only to find out it had been used by every cat in the neighborhood as a pee pad. There was another spot in which a group of twentysomethings arrived at a party in their VW Cabrio, top down, on a beautiful starry night. The group decided their ride was better than the party and drove off without ever getting out.

VW and Arnold were masters of capturing mood and moment, and producing ads that people might actually use their TiVo to replay instead of skip. But that was then. This is now. Arnold lost maybe its best creative director in Lance Jensen when he left to launch Hummer agency Modernista. And VW a few years ago began ordering more rationality in ads, more focus on information and technology. Yawn. The company brought out a $40,000+ SUV, the Touareg, and a $75,000 Phaeton sedan. No compact SUV. No crossover SUV. No Microbus. The launch of the new Jetta this year, a very important launch, has been largely invisible...nothing to talk about around the water cooler.

VW has a ways to go in terms of quality. Research VWs in Consumer Reports or J.D. Power and Associates, and its not pretty. More than most brands, it has to rely on capturing the consumer heart and sense of style. Somebody has forgotten that at VW. It's ads today don't stand out much from Chevy's or Toyota's.

So, Crispin will take its crack at VW, a brand that has inspired some of the best creative work in advertising history, from Doyle Dane Bernbach's "Think Small" ad to Arnold's "Da Da Da." But the question is whether this company is ready to let a creative group of people do what it takes to get the brand noticed again, or are they going to muzzle CP+B with a lot of directives about technology, quality improvements and such getting into the ads?

CP+B has done a great job with MINI. But let's face it. Ninety-five percent of MINI's success was achieved in the design studio, and by setting the sales volume goals so low. Selling between 20,000 and 30,000 MINIs per year is a whole different kettle of fish from VW having to sell between 300,000 and 400,000 vehicles per year.

Great advertising is generally achieved from a great partnership--great chemistry between a risk taking client and a bold, risk taking ad agency. That's what VW was with DDB in the 1960s and what it was again in the 90s with Arnold. It's a pity for the people at Arnold that the magic couldn't be achieved again without divorce. But that's the ad business for you.

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