Over the span of three months last year, Ammirati & Puris summarily dimissed the '80s and formally welcomed the '90s into its stark white offices on Manhattan's lower Fifth Avenue. The transition was not only late in coming - after all, the change occurred well into the second half of 1992 - it was also difficult and public. Then again, coping with thorny issues is nothing new to the agency founded in 1974 by Ralph Ammirati and Martin Puris. This was a shop that closed out the last decade with a two-year fight to buy itself back from its parent company.
And being the talk of the advertising world is nothing new for Ammirati & Puris, either. In its two decades, the agency has created some of the industry's most memorable lines and important images.
Still, the events that transpired between August and November of last year surpassed, in terms of both Ammirati's survival and advertising's integrity, anything the agency had done before.
First came the drawn-out MasterCard review, considered the most expensive and arduous new-business chase ever. When it ended on Aug. 24, with
Ammirati & Puris beating out Fallon McElligott and incumbent Lintas:N.Y., the agency had ensured its financial well-being with the $60-million account. The MasterCard win also sounded a theme that could make A&P as important in the current decade of fiscal restraint as it was in the era of excess just ended.
Then came BMW. Virtually from the agency's inception, Ammirati had handled the German carmaker, helping it rise from an obscure luxury import to the status symbol for a generation. Although its 1992 sales were running 27% ahead of 1991's results, BMW announced at the end of October that it was putting its account up for review.
Almost immediately, Ammirati decided it would not take part. The agency that made 'The Ultimate Driving Machine' a catch phrase of popular culture was walking away from a $70-million piece of business. 'We try to keep ourselves in a position where we can be free to make business decisions without feeling we have to take a client, or part with a client,' says agency president and ceo Puris. 'We've been able to structure the business so that we can do that.'
While Puris admits 'BMW was definitely the low point' of the year, the agency's stand on the account earned Ammirati & Puris a thick stack of letters and faxes of support, along with a host of congratulatory phone calls and the admiration of many in the industry. Even members of the BMW family rang or wrote to express their regrets at the separation.
'I've never seen anything like it,' says one ad executive. 'It's one thing to walk away from a $5-million piece of business, but $70 million? It's quite a statement to stand up to a client that size. It's damn commendable.' Adds another industry veteran: 'If anyone was going to pull off something like this, it was going to be those guys. It sounds corny, but there's a lot of integrity and principles there.'
Says the 54-year-old Puris, 'It was really gratifying. Pat Fallon was the first person to call. We've gone up against him in two tough pitches. He's a competitor. He called before it was announced to say 'What a rotten deal.' The response was great.'
It was that kind of year for Ammirati & Puris.
Even after turning its back on a prestige account, the agency managed to look like the winner. And that good fortune carried over into other areas. For instance, at a time when many companies were keeping a tight rein on spending, Ammirati clients such as Aetna and RCA pumped substantially more dollars into their ad budgets. As a result, Ammirati's billings from existing clients grew a healthy 20%, or $55 million, in 1992. Overall, billings grew an enviable 30% to $325 million - by far the largest gain among similar-sized agencies in its region.
'Maybe it's because we're selective in the clients we pick, but our clients, by and large, had good years in '92,' notes Puris, the gregarious half of the agency's founders. 'So we didn't get battered around the head and shoulders as much as some agencies did.'
Ammirati's relatively short list of blue-chip clients also includes United Parcel Service, Nikon, Schweppes, Compaq and Phillips' Milk of Magnesia. The agency created new campaigns for the latter two in 1992 that were well-received. Even Ammirati's final effort for BMW, the 'Better Driver' campaign, drew praise from the automaker's dealers.
It was not the creative that caused Ammirati and BMW to part ways. 'The review did not result from any dissatisfaction with Ammirati & Puris,' says a BMW spokesman. 'We had a good relationship and they had done good work for us.' The decision to call a review, he adds, was a result of 'a whole examination of our businesses, and that includes advertising.'
Before turning around in 1992, BMW's sales had slipped each year since 1986. The company reportedly decided early last year to embark on a cost-cutting mission, and in the spring it installed Victor Doolan as marketing chief.
Those events, as much as anything, conspired to bring down the curtain on the long-running relationship. The final straw, industry sources said at the time of the split, was BMW's desire to cut the commission on the business from 11% to 5%. The carmaker refuses to comment on the issue, but it's believed that when Mullen Advertising took over BMW in February, it did so at a much lower rate than Ammirati had been paid.
Both sides deny speculation that BMW slipped out of Ammirati's grasp because Puris became preoccupied with the MasterCard review and with his work as the head of advertising for George Bush's re-election bid. 'When I went into the Bush campaign I told them early on that I could not abandon the agency,' Puris says. 'They did everything to make that possible. I was headquartered in New York instead of Washington, even though it was against their better judgment. I was involved (in the campaign) but not so much that I wasn't involved with our biggest clients.'
According to Ralph Ammirati, the agency's 62-year-old chairman and creative chief, entering the BMW review would have been pointless. 'There was nothing we could prove in the competition that we hadn't already proved,' he says.
If BMW was a Pyrrhic loss for Ammirati & Puris, MasterCard was a bold triumph.
In early 1990, after two years of tense negotiations with British parent Boase Massimi Pollitt and BMP's subsequent owner, Omnicom Group, Ammirati finally succeeded in buying its freedom. Although the deal allowed the shop to pursue the new business that had dried up during its ownership limbo, it also left Ammirati with debt from the buyback and heavy monthly loan payments.
A client like MasterCard could ease that burden considerably. Says an executive familiar with the agency, 'It was like, 'If we win this one, our bank problems are over forever. So let's throw everything at it.' And that's what they did.'
During the course of the five-month pitch, Ammirati & Puris spent what ADWEEK estimated at $750,000 - on everything from focus groups to satellite link-ups - to win the business. (The agency denies spending anywhere near that amount, but declines to provide figures.)
'Yes, they move slowly,' says Puris of MasterCard. 'They're bankers, they don't rush. But they didn't do anything meaningless, and they didn't do anything just for the sake of doing something. It was a long process, but we knew what they were going to do.'
The creative brief was to create advertising that would establish an identity for MasterCard. The brand needed a distinct position, such as those enjoyed by upper-crust charge card American Express and worldwide credit card Visa. Even newcomer Discover had managed to stake out a position as the card of the middle class.
During the review, Ammirati came up with the concept of 'usefulness.' That, along with some rough executions and extensive research, was enough to capture the imagination of Jim Desrosier, MasterCard's vp/advertising, and the rest of the search committee - even if the execution wasn't quite there. 'After the review, we started fresh,' Desrosier says. 'We wanted to go after 'smartness.' ' Ammirati developed no less than 30 new concepts. 'They showed a willingness to go as far as it was going to take,' Desrosier says.
Agency and client finally settled on 'It's more than a credit card. It's smart money.' In the new campaign's first offering, a light and quirky spot that broke Feb. 28, Ammirati puts MasterCard's new pragmatic image to the ultimate test - a trip to the supermarket.
The idea, says associate creative director Brent Bouchez, was to paint MasterCard as a device that makes everyday purchases easier and simpler. 'We wanted to create a personality and attitude that the others don't have,' he explains. 'We wanted to say, 'Hey wait, it's not the Holy Grail, it's a tool to help you through life.' '
Ammirati's reputation for attention to detail was never more evident than in its hunt for a narrator to handle voice-over duties on the campaign. The agency auditioned nearly 200 candidates before deciding that actor Rob Morrow, who plays Dr. Joel Fleischman on Northern Exposure, would give the spots just the right hip, urbane tone.
Credit card consultants and ad industry executives say the work stands out from other advertising in the category. Some even contend the strategy to demystify MasterCard by positioning it against cash and checks is brilliant for the times. 'There's no question in our minds that we hired the best agency in the country,' says Desrosier. 'If we had not had this agency, we would not have arrived at the clarity, focus, simplicity and power of this idea.'
MasterCard is not the only client praising Ammirati. Compaq computer was getting clobbered by low-priced clone makers like Dell and Gateway when it signed up with A&P in December 1991. 'We hired a new agency to help us reposition the company,' says Jim Garrity, director of marketing for the Houston-based computer giant. 'And right from the get-go, they helped us do that.'
Ammirati's task was to introduce a new family of computers and to convey Compaq's new corporate philosophy about pricing. 'The question was how do you take a brand name known for high-end premium products and launch lower-end products without damaging the brand image,' says Steve Gardner, the executive vp at Ammirati who handles the Compaq and UPS accounts.
The agency took it one step at a time. A 12-page magazine insert preceded Compaq's announcement in early June that it would be introducing new, lower-priced personal computers. The insert, which ran in mainstream magazines and computer books, didn't show a single product. In direct, often humorous text, it told consumers to expect new products and pricing.
One ad, referring to the cheap clones that have flooded the market, used the headline 'At most computer companies, R&D stands for replicate and duplicate.' The ad went on to tell consumers what not to expect. 'What you won't see are stamped-out, second-rate products with the Compaq name stuck on at the end of somebody else's assembly line.' After the new products were unveiled, Ammirati ran eight-page ads showcasing the computers.
Compaq's turnaround began almost immediately. Shipments started outpacing its competition, and the company couldn't fill backlog. 'Compaq was probably one of the greatest experiences that we've ever had in the business,' says Puris. 'When we were hired, we were at ground zero in the reinvention of Compaq. It was like the birth of BMW's first car, or even before the birth, during conception. It was a great experience to see a company talk about doing this and then to do it. And have it be successful in nine months.'
Another client pleased with Ammirati's innovations is RCA's consumer electronic division. Ammirati mixed the old with the new to give RCA a refurbished image and a much-needed boost. In one campaign, A&P brought back Nipper the dog - used since early in the century by the company - and then introduced young Chipper, the next canine generation, to showcase RCA's next generation of products.
In a commercial that aired last year, Chipper and Nipper watch as a single potted sunflower begins to grow toward the sunrise on a big-screen TV. The ad, introducing RCA's 52-inch projection screen home theater, finishes with the line, 'RCA. Changing Entertainment. Again.'
'They're very good at reflecting on this business, defining where we needed to go,' says Bruce Hutchinson, RCA's manager of national advertising and consumer research. 'They've been great in revealing who we really are as a brand. It's tough to look at yourself in the mirror without blinking, and lately we've had to do a lot of self-evaluation. We're not the old RCA.'
While many clients are drawn to the agency because of its strategic thinking, they soon develop an appreciation for its perfectionist attitude.
'At times it can be oppressive,' admits Puris, whose tastes run to finely tailored suits and English antiques. 'Our standards are high, and we're not forgiving when they're not met.'
But it is Ammirati, a soft-spoken family man who favors sportcoats and never wears a tie on Fridays, who has the keenest eye. 'Ralph is real picky,' says Bouchez, who joined A&P two years ago after logging time at Chiat/Day and Ketchum. 'He sees every detail. But that's what makes everything that goes out of here so good.'
Just how far does the obsession go? On a recent RCA shoot, Ammirati assigned one producer for surveillance on camera angles. The job: to make sure the dogs' 'private parts' could not be seen. 'I've always been that way,' says Ammirati with a smile. 'It's a bit of a curse, but I'm glad I've got it.'
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)