GM Planworks

W hen General Motors put its estimated $3.2 billion buying account into review last March, the smart money was on Publicis Groupe’s GM Planworks. After all, the struggling automaker had not included planning in the review—a signal that seemed to indicate GM was satisfied with Planworks as the dedicated planner for the entire GM media account.

But Planworks CEO Dennis Donlin wasn’t taking any chances. He reasoned that at any time during the review—which was billed as a shootout between Planworks and the incumbents, Interpublic Group’s Mediaworks and LCI, which handled national and local buying, respectively—the rules could change. And they often do.

“Rarely in a pitch do things stay as tightly controlled as you want them to be, and I never assumed that we had planning in our pocket,” says Donlin.”I assumed that it was an open pitch, and that everything was in play.”

As it turned out, GM was in fact open to hearing ideas that could have resulted in a wholesale shift of planning chores.

“We did invite the agencies to think about how they might redraw the line between planning and buying,” says Betsy Lazar, general director, media and advertising operations at GM. Under certain scenarios, she says, “there could have been a structure where if IPG won the buying assignment, it may have caused us to change the responsibilities that would have possibly given IPG some planning” as well.

GM had last evaluated its media buying practices in 1994, when Mediaworks was first formed.

“If you think how much the media landscape has changed in the last 11 years, much less the last 12 months, it became very apparent to us that we weren’t really structured optimally to move forward into this new frontier,” says Lazar, adding that in particular, local dealer groups were pressing GM for a new system. “They had planners and buyers calling on them and wanted very much to have a single point of contact. So basically, we challenged our agencies to go back with a clean piece of paper to see how they would deal with these issues if they were setting this up from square one.”

The review also followed major changes in the marketing leadership at GM North America—notably, the arrival of Mark LaNeve as vp of vehicle sales, service and marketing, and Brent Dewar as vp, marketing and advertising (Dewar has since moved to vp of field sales, service and parts).

At the same time, a new directive had come down from company CEO Rick Wagoner that identified marketing as one of the key pillars that would drive GM’s recovery after years of declining share of market and mounting financial losses.

Smart money aside, Lazar says that neither contender had an edge at the outset of the review.

“We were getting excellent work from both agencies,” she says. Even after Mediaworks and Planworks made their final presentations, the decision could have gone either way. It would come down to answers the contenders gave to a series of follow-up questions about their pitches. “It was the most gut-wrenching decision of my career,” says Lazar of the $3.2 billion choice, adding that Planworks and Mediaworks came up with solutions that were “quite different.”

Ultimately, Planworks, with its integrated and fully dedicated approach, prevailed.

The win marked the biggest account switch in the history of advertising. It required Planworks to quickly set up a new national video buying operation in New York and seven new local spot buying hubs across the country to service the 700 local dealership groups within the GM distribution network.

New print and digital/online buying operations (Planworks even won the digital buying assignment that GM shop Digitas also pitched) in Detroit and Chicago, respectively, also needed to be built. It all had to be done, along with the hiring and training of 150 new staffers, in about 90 business days from the time that GM announced its decision last May.

For winning the record piece of new business and executing and deftly managing the massive and complex transition in what the client has called a “seamless fashion,” GM Planworks has been named Adweek’s 2005 U.S. Media Agency of the Year.

Donlin describes the agency’s winning strategy as one that is designed for the new “attention economy,” where consumer engagement is critical and where the old model of “interruptive messaging with a continuous supply of gross rating points” no longer works as effectively. “We’re paying so much now for exposure that we can’t afford to say, ‘That was nice,’ and move on. We have to weave ourselves into the fabric” of evolving patterns of media usage, he says.

Case in point: Cadillac’s 2006 Super Bowl strategy. In addition to the two in-game ads, Donlin says, “We had a complete presence on site, we were in publications and online, and it was all tied to the theme of when you get to the pinnacle of achievement in America, Cadillac is there.”

But outside of the Super Bowl and one or two other high-profile TV “events,” like the Oscars telecast, the broader ad campaign for Cadillac doesn’t have a huge traditional TV presence, says Donlin. And that is increasingly true for the other GM brands as well, he says.

“None of the plans are built with a sustained heavy TV schedule,” he says. Hummer, for example, advertises in the NFL, “combined with a ton of microtargeted print and an emerging focus on broadband and interactive marketing.”

In fact, new media, including online and emerging areas like video-on-demand, will be a larger focus for the carmaker going forward, says Lazar, and is an area that has experienced faster growth in recent years. According to TNS Media Intelligence, GM’s Internet ad spending climbed nearly 50 percent in 2004 to an estimated $65 million, and it jumped another 65 percent last year to more than $110 million.

That’s a small sum compared to GM’s total media outlay of $3.2 billion, but it will continue to grow significantly. Lazar says the company’s overall ad budget will remain roughly flat in 2006 while the company continues to “shift dollars out of traditional media and into the digital space.”

In fact, says Lazar, a key challenge for GM for this year is “digital leadership,” with the expectation that Planworks will forge the way. “They’ve been aggressive, but we really want to be as dominant as possible, and part of that is getting the content organized so we can move quickly with exciting content to some of the new formats like video-on-demand. That’s a big challenge for ’06.”

Once Planworks had won the new assignment, Donlin and his top lieutenant, chief operating officer Mary Carpenter, split their focus to expedite building the buying operation. Donlin focused on New York, working with Mike Rosen to set up the national buying operation dubbed the Video Investment Group. Rosen, formerly a senior buyer at Mediaworks, joined Planworks last summer as chief investment officer charged with running the video group.

Meanwhile, Carpenter focused on setting up the local buying operation, working with Kathy McCauley, who was hired from WPP’s MindShare last summer as Planworks’ svp and managing director for local buying and planning, and Kevin Gallagher, who oversees spot operations at sibling agencies Starcom and Starlink, and to whom McCauley reports.

“Spot is hugely important for GM,” says Carpenter. “We believe that some of the most interesting opportunities for digital media are happening at the local level, such as video-on-demand. With the Internet, the future is not just national but also the retail messaging that is happening locally.”

But more importantly, says Lazar, the new operation almost forces better communication between the spot and national units to foster best practices and prevent opportunities from being lost. Or, as Lazar puts it, “We think that we’re structured with a more seamless integration across units.”

Meanwhile, Donlin says a lot of long-term thinking went into the pitch. “We knew they were looking for a very broad vision,” he says. “Our orientation was looking out to the next 10 to 15 years. This was our chance to build a planning and buying operation out to the year 2020.”

True enough, says Lazar, although at the moment she’s more focused on ad plans for the year ahead. “So far, we’re on track,” she says. As for 2020 planning, she says, “That’s why we pay Dennis the big bucks.”