Basic Instinct: Arnold keeps it simple to create winning, likable ads
Ron Lawner says he played six different musical instruments before he turned 10. Today, the chief creative officer at Arnold Communications indulges his lifelong passion by selecting soundtracks for his clients’ campaigns. There’s the cult throwback from Styx “Mr. Roboto” and the late folk singer Nick Drake rhapsodizing in “Pink Moon” for Volkswagen, an original composition for ToySmart and the sweet pairing of Cole Porter’s “Always True to You in My Fashion” with Talbots. The agency’s “gift” for music, as one client calls it, is unparalleled.
“We put the same energy into choosing music as we do casting or choosing a director. Nothing is left to chance,” says the 51-year-old Lawner, whose credenza is lined with CDs. That attention to detail led Arnold to win 11 out of 14 new-business pitches last year, while crafting more than a half-dozen award-winning ads for Volkswagen of America.
Arnold has not only perfected its musical ear but the process it employs to pitch new business. The agency has a disarmingly simple philosophy: Its people, like the marketing campaigns it creates, just want to be liked.
“Deep down, the overall objective is not just to build awareness but to build preference. If you picked out the 10 or 100 best campaigns of all time, I would bet you would find that most are likable,” says Arnold chief marketing officer Fran Kelly. Arnold sells most prospects, even dot.coms, a three- to five-year marketing plan, believing the sturdiest brands are built over time.
Almost every commercial produced by the Boston agency has a powerful soundtrack. Some choices seem obvious, like organ-thumping stadium music for spots promoting a bank sponsorship of Major League Baseball. Lawner makes no apologies for taking the simple route. “Why resist the obvious?” he asks. “Often, your first instinct is right. And it’s right for a reason.”
Those instincts have paid off neatly for VW. The brand, once almost given up for dead, was revived, and Arnold, which seemed headed for extinction a decade ago, sustained its impressive new-business roll for a fifth consecutive year. “Every year since 1995, some people have looked at our performance and said, ‘Hey, maybe the agency’s peaked,’ ” says Kelly. Guess again.
Arnold closed its books on another record year, increasing U.S. revenue by an estimated 28 percent to almost $141 million and claiming $1.4 billion in billings. Strategic initiatives included shoring up integrated services by investing in an outside database marketing firm and building a brand promotions group under executive vice president Beth Rice. To gain a foothold in technology, Arnold hired Ken Umansky from The Richards Group, Dallas, who built up Arnold’s dot.com portfolio. EMC, ToySmart, Dow Jones-owned WSJ.com, Careers.com, Dow Jones.com and CMGI-owned MyWay.com are all new to Arnold’s roster.
While Umansky sized up dot.com opportunities, executive vice presidents Lisa Unsworth, Pete Favat, Pam Hamlin and Jay Williams mobilized teams to produce concurrent pitches for the national anti-smoking and Royal Caribbean accounts, two showcase clients that agency executives predict will result in some of the most talked-about work in the industry this year.
For these reasons Arnold has been judged Adweek’s New England Agency of the Year for 1999.
What keeps Arnold fresh, says VW marketing director Liz Vanzura, is a combination of passion and knowledge. “They know our brand better than anyone. And they keep coming up with more and more brilliant ideas,” she adds. “We’re finding it works.”
When Arnold won the account, VW was selling less than 50,000 cars. Last year, VW reported its best year since 1974, selling more than 315,000 units.
ToySmart, which hired Arnold in September, is also singing its praises. “I always feel like I am the only client it has,” says chief marketing officer Kel Kelly. “This business is so crazy and there is so much stress. But one of the strongest bonds I have is the confidence that whatever I throw at them is going to get done.”
In five months, ToySmart sold a stake to Disney and launched a $15 million multimedia ad campaign that moved consumer awareness from 0 to 25 percent, according to a recent tracking study cited by the client.
Arnold’s 1999 performance wasn’t flawless, however. It was cut from FleetBoston Financial Group’s roster, which consolidated its account at rival Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos. And while Arnold quickly rebounded by securing ad duties for PNC Bank in its Washington, D.C., office., it posted another notable loss when SAP America moved its account to global agency Ogilvy & Mather.
Its size almost requires Arnold to have international capabilities but the shop lost its currency for acquisition when parent company Snyder Communications’ share price tumbled, curbing its prospects for expansion in the U.S. and overseas. As the year closed, Snyder asked an investment bank to explore selling its assets, including Arnold. It’s believed that Snyder chairman and CEO Daniel Snyder is more interested in running an NFL team (he led a group of investors who bought the Washington Redskins last year) than building a world-class marketing-services company.
That revelation has stirred hope among Arnold’s top players, including 62-year-old chairman and CEO Ed Eskandarian, that being owned by a holding company that understands the ad business and runs Arnold autonomously will continue to allow “nice people” to make likable advertising that resonates with sound and sales.
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