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Marty’s Marketing Minutia

No "Joy" as BMW's ad agency resigns.

by on Oct.25, 2010

BMW's Joy campaign generated plenty of complaints but was that to blame?.

The announcement seems almost unreal, like a promo for the popular TV series, Mad Men, rather than an actual press release.  But after reading it a second and third time we realized this wasn’t a fictional ad agency shake-up but a very real parting of ways between two of the most closely watched partners in the business.

“BMW and GSD&M Idea City will end their relationship after the current contract expires,” went the report. “We thank GSD&M for their contributions over the last five years. They have been great partners. However, we have a number of agency partners, both in the US and globally, that provide high quality work. We look forward to continuing to work with this team of great agencies now and in the future on a wide range of dynamic new products, technologies and initiatives.”

Over the past few days there have been plenty of rumors about what precipitated what had seemed to be a mutually satisfactory agency–client partnership.

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The short list of viable explanations starts with the untimely death of BMW’s respected vice president of marketing, Jack Pitney, a vocal proponent of the Omnicon shop, who was killed in a freak accident on the farm he liked to work in his off hours.  His relatively unknown successor, Dan Creed, goes the argument, hopes to imprint his own name on the brand with an agency of his own choice.

There’s also the lackluster “Joy” campaign which relegated BMW’s famous and much-loved, tagline, “The Ultimate Driving Machine,” to little more than a 6-point footnote.  Now add the loss of BMW’s regional ad groups and the departure earlier in the year from Idea City of the two leaders of the BMW creative team to CP&B — which wanted another auto account after the loss of VW.

Just short of exactly five years ago (November 14, 2005) I chatted with Jack Pitney on-the-record about the rather abrupt move to GSD&M (it was pre-Idea City in the name back then) after a quick agency review, he said, “We feel confident that GSD&M will offer us a fresh, exciting perspective and an inventive new edge for the BMW brand. We believe GSD&M is the right agency to help us memorably convey the outstanding qualities of our brand to the public.”

One of GSD&M’s founders and its president, Roy Spence noted in a press release announcing their appointment that, “BMW is a best-in-class brand.  Full of life.  Built with innovations. Uncompromising in quality and character, GSD&M is honored and so very proud to represent this brand of great purpose.”

An advertising love fest, right? So it seemed.

Then in May last year, GSD&M added the BMW account worldwide as a client, a surprising move given the Texas-based shop had little, if any, international ad experience.

I asked Pitney about this appointment during a media event in New York the week the announcement was made, and how BMW and the agency had been working on the US business.

“One of the things we are aggressive about is to bring the agency to Munich several times a year – 4 or 5 times a year,” he explained. “The purpose is nothing more than ferreting out different BMW stories, different colors behind the brand.  They love those trips. It’s their biggest challenge and have made the observation several times about the accounts where they are always looking for something to talk about – at BMW there are so many stories.”

At that time I thought, it’s no wonder GSD&M won the international account. They certainly had a distinct advantage once they opened a satellite office in Munich.  Pitney touched on that when he commented, “Our mantra is that … if the BMW business is not the number 1 account in the agency that everyone wants to work on, then we are doing something wrong.”

But now, apparently, the agency itself doesn’t work on the account.  Why the abrupt change? We may never know the full story, but we do know this has been the year of the unstable agency-client relationship.

What’s BMW Going to Do?

Nobody at either the agency or client is talking, either on or off-the-record, but based on current circumstances, as evidenced by GM and Chrysler, a new CMO, Pitney’s successor, wants a new agency.

Until recently the automotive advertising world was one of the industry’s most stable niches, where decades-long relationships were the norm, rather than the exception. After the economic meltdown, the biz changed. There’ve been more new agencies fired and hired in the past 18 months than ever before.

What’s BMW going to do, their formal statement notwithstanding, with the US business which is around $130 million, and the worldwide account estimated to be $430 million?

Agencies still want automotive business and there’s not that much around. Will Fallon, Burnett and Modernista, who all lost auto biz recently give it a try? What about the agencies GSD&M beat to win the BMW account which included the Martin Agency and KB&P?

There are currently a number of agencies working on the BMW account, according to industry reports, including  WPP’s Grey; Dotglu, an arm of MDC Partners’ Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal & Partners; and Interpublic Group of Cos.’ Universal McCann, which handles media duties.

The battle to grab this potentially lucrative account is now underway.

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