VW Ad Review: Only Part of the Chaos Over Car Accounts in Ad Land

As Volkswagen of America forges ahead with finding a new ad agency, the review that some agencies are calling the review of the decade may turn out entirely predictable.

The review for VW’s $200 million -$250 million account, being handled by consultant Dick Roth, is said by sources to involve DDB; Goodby Silverstein and Partners, and possibly Deutsch; McKinney & Silver.

But various sources I have spoken with about the review say that DDB has a better than 50% chance of walking away with it. DDB handles VW in most other markets around the world. “DDB will have to really screw up to blow this,” said one well placed source familiar with the political terrain inside VW.

Another strong agency in the mix, Goodby, is, like DDB, an Omnicom agency. And Omnicom could well be facing trouble on its Chrysler business. Landing VW, and even going after the media business, now with WPP, would go a long way toward replacing potentially lost Chrysler business.

Chrysler is now managed by Fiat and Chrysler’s long-time agency BBDO will have to battle to keep it in the coming months. Speaking of global assignments: Fiat’s agency overseas is Leo Burnett, which is on tenterhooks with GM in the U.S., with only the Buick and GMC business.

Sources also tell me that Leo Burnett management has already had conversations with Fiat about consolidating Chrysler and Fiat with the shop in the U.S., though nothing has been decided.

Not surprisingly, none of these agencies has ever been keen to compete in a review. That’s why you don’t see Wieden & Kennedy on these lists. Wieden has Honda in the U.K., and does great work there. The agency continues to hope, executives at the agency have told me in the past, that Honda will wake up one day and offer the business, now at Rubin Postaer, to W&K.

Even if DDB has a better than 50% of landing VW, maybe as high as 75%, VW is doing the right thing by having a review. Why not get input and thinking from leading ad agencies on your brand?

This is the argument being made in the halls of General Motors these days. New CMO Bob Lutz is now in charge of agency relationships. He is giving roster shops Campbell-Ewald, Leo Burnett, Modernista on GM’s remaining brands (Deutsch has Saturn but Saturn has been sold to Penske Automotive) some time to prove they are up to helping the “New GM.” But there are voices in and out of GM clamoring for a review, especially of the Chevrolet account. Why not challenge Campbell-Ewald to reinvent its approach, staff with new minds and voices, and see if some other agencies would better serve GM?

Indeed, a lack of review will send a bad message to those watching GM, and looking for fresh thinking and executions.

But back to Volkswagen. “DDB has been hanging around like an old girlfriend who won’t accept the marriage,” says one industry wag who has been through the VW ad wars.

It’s true. It has stuck in the craw of DDB management since the 1990s when VW yanked the business and gave it to Arnold Worldwide. Then, it was on to Crispin. Meantime, DDB continued to rack up creative awards on VW…abroad.

The history between DDB and VW is, of course, rich and deep. VW pretty much created DDB back in the late 1950s when the agency first landed the account. Sure, Doyle Dane Bernbach had other business, but it was VW that launched it internationally. The agency and automaker built up VW to be the number-one import by far in the 1960s and 70s. The advertising is, and should be, studied even today for how to tell meaningful, lasting brand stories.

In fact, I believe that while you can’t, and shouldn’t, re-run VW advertising (as they trtied to do in the 1970s when the Rabbit was first introduced), there is so much that can be learned from that work…even today. First: The benefits of knowing your brand and product line and telling connected stories in each execution. Second: Keep doing it for years and years. Third: Do it right, and have creative, yet disciplined, people in charge of the story-telling. Fourth: Keep doing it. Fifth: Make each execution literate, clever and informative. It’s possible to do all three.

Today’s mix of media still involves TV, print, billboards, etc. But even in social networking, blogs, online video, etc., the story needs to be told. Too many companies, and agencies, don’t get this.

If there was one place I thought Crispin under-delivered, it was in not coming up with a single story line to carry the mail for VW. There were lots of interesting ads.

But they all had the feel of one-offs, disconnected. They stirred attention, engagement. And VW’s sales, down 13.5% this year compared with 32% for the industry, seem to indicate that the ads were working on sales.

Say what you want about the German accented talking Beetle in ads since last year, but the engagement metrics as measured by Nielsen/IAG showed that they caught people’s attention better than most ads.

So, VW will have a new ad agency in a few months. It could well be back to the future with DDB. But if DDB doesn’t show up, and Goodby or Deutsch or McKinney rings the bell, U.S. management may have to go out on a limb again and argue to continue to go their own way whilst the rest of the company uses DDB for the most part.

And here is another prediction: Crispin Porter Bogusky+Partners won’t long be without a car account. There are brands out there battling for attention. And if Crispin has proved one thing, it is that it knows how to get attention for its brands.

p.s on this blog....

The ads Crispin created for the GTI back in 2006 were heavily criticized. I actually think they were terrific, but should have been mostly confined to a series of Net videos.

This was an interactive video that was done as part of the campaign.

And here was one of the ads.

I think the lesson here was to direct some over-the-top stuff to specific audiences online and maybe some very specific cable programming.

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