Ford's Focus Challenge A Big One For An Ad Agency

The shake up at Ford is underway. Ford North America president Mark Fields and Ford ad director Barry Engle are opening up its advertising assignments, with the struggling automaker seeking a new ad agency to come up with some ideas for pushing the 2008 Focus. Ford’s long-time ad agency, J. Walter Thompson (JWT), retains Ford’s ad account and is being given a chance to pitch for the business.

But Ford is clearly testing the waters for some new creative juice and thinking about the struggling Ford brand. Word is that there are two agencies—both owned by JWT parent WPP—vying for the assignment. I know WPP offers Ford a set price for its work. And, yes, I know that Ford has to watch its pennies. But if I were Mark Fields, sales and marketing chief Cisco Codina or Ford ad chief Barry Engle, I’d be looking outside WPP at New York agencies Strawberry Frog, Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners, Mother, Anomaly, as well as The Martin Agency of Richmond and perhaps Fallon Worldwide of Minneapolis.

The 2008 Focus is an important vehicle for Ford. The current Focus is a heavily rebated under-appreciated budget sub-compact. Its reputation in the U.S. was severely damaged between 1999 and 2004 when it had numerous well publicized recalls. Quality has improved greatly, but Ford still hasn’t been able to rehab the car’s image despite he fact that it was on Car & Driver’s Top Ten list several years in a row.

The Focus, despite its early critical success, has also been the victim of Ford neglect. When the automaker launched a new Focus in Europe, it carried over the old model in the U.S. with cosmetic improvements because the models’ poor rep for quality wouldn’t allow Ford to charge enough to cover the costs of a new design. As it is, Ford loses around $3,000 a car because of heavy discounting and high-cost manufacturing in Michigan. So, the media, which hailed the new European Focus has constantly reminded readers that the U.S. was getting sloppy seconds. I couldn’t help but grimace (since I am a fan of the current Focus as a great value proposition) as I heard Car and Driver’s Mark Gillies at the Detroit Auto Show bad-mouth the Focus to a group he was leading around the show floor. I thought: “C’mon dude. The car is $12,000 out the door.” I know what Mark was getting at. The Focus was a good thing when it came out, and it shouldn’t have to saved nine years later. It should be thriving like Honda Civic.

The real worry for Ford is that the new Focus design caught nothing but bad buzz at that auto show among the press corp. It will be offered only as a four door and two-door coupe. Ford has reduced the manufacturing complexity to lower costs in the hopes of making a profit on each car. The current Focus comes in a four door sedan, four door hatch and two-door hatch. The four-door wagon was already killed off.

Ford CEO Alan Mulally, who is a design engineer by training, nevertheless has some strong opinions about marketing and the Ford brand. Having come from Boeing last September, he has absolutely no reason to be loyal to JWT nor does he have any interest in protecting the agency politically. All he is interested in is moving the needle on sales and building up the brand. he is relentless about investing in every facet of the Ford brand globally.

JWT is part of WPP Group plc. JWT recently joined with other WPP agencies Y&R (Lincoln and Mercury) and Ogilvy & Mather (corporate advertising) and other WPP vendors working for Ford in new office space on the other side of the Southfield Freeway from Ford headquarters. If JWT doesn’t retain the Focus assignment, it will be a blow to its stature and pride. If I were them, I’d be pulling out the creative stops to knock Mulally and Co. off their feet with ideas.

It won’t be easy with a design that has already been graded “M” for Mediocre. The two things the Focus has going for it in the 2008 version is the availability of Sync, the telematics system that Ford developed with Microsoft and Nuance Communications that, among other things, reads text messages to the driver through the car stereo, as well as fuel economy that reaches around 37 mpg on the highway. Both features should be of great interest to buyers under 30.

Ford has been very much a company with an “agency of record.” And JWT has been doing some very effective work n the last year—the Fusion Challenge campaign and current ads for the Ford Expedition to name two efforts. But companies are realizing that a very effective tool in creative marketing management is to invite other agencies to pitch a single product or campaign as a way of pressuring an agency or shopping for a new one.

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