TrueCar.com has hired Santa Monica ad agency Donat/Wald + Haque to handle marketing consulting and public relations for the car-hunting site, which has drawn fire lately from auto dealers over its unconventional pricing model.
In a relatively unusual client-agency relationship, the shop is overseeing TrueCar.com’s marketing department, according to DW+H CEO Lucas Donat. Roughly seven of the agency’s 40 staffers are working full-time on the brand, with another three heavily focused on the account. That includes spending at least 50 percent of their time at the client's nearby headquarters, Donat said. It also means TrueCar’s own marketing department of about 10 reports to DW+H, he said.
The agency began assessing the brand’s marketing department in December as an unpaid consultant. It was hired on a monthly retainer starting in January to develop the brand’s marketing across media channels, said Donat, who described his shop as TrueCar’s “chief marketing agency.”
“There is no barrier between us and their marketing organization," he said.
TrueCar CEO Scott Painter acknowledged the relationship in a statement Tuesday. "DW+H has proven to be a true partner of TrueCar and has demonstrated innovative and creative thinking around our brand with a deep understanding of our customers and industry partners," he said. "We are inspired by Lucas [Donat] and his team and are excited to continue to work with them as we embark upon a transformative year in the marketplace."
Donat said the new role—which grew out of his longtime relationship with Painter—follows a string of chief marketing officer changes at the organization. Todd Daum held the position most recently, serving from June 2011 to this month, according to his LinkedIn page. “The position was impossible for one person to fulfill successfully,” Donat said, noting the organization had to handle crisis management while developing its brand in a complex media landscape.
Among other responsibilities, DW+H will handle public relations. It's a sensitive area these days for the company, whose business model has sparked opposition from the auto industry after roiling the traditional way consumers and dealers come to terms on car prices. As The New York Times reported at length earlier this month, TrueCar provided an estimate of a car's true cost to dealers, then promised to deliver a guaranteed price from dealers, causing dealers to fear that less bargaining and lower profit margins would drive them out of business. Opposition last year led to pressure from state regulators, ultimately forcing TrueCar to tweak its approach, the Times reported.
Donat emphasized that TrueCar’s marketing approach would focus on speaking to consumers and dealers on whom the brand’s business model depends. “Dealers are an incredibly important part of the local business ecosystem, and we want to see them celebrated because we want the process to be something that's amazing for dealers and consumers alike,” he said.
Donat said TrueCar was relatively new to television, having launched its first TV campaign in October 2011, before DW+H was on board. The agency's responsibilities won’t necessarily include creating television ads or other creative executions. The shop is leaving the door open to working with other agencies and production partners (Donat declined to name which, saying discussions are still “nascent").
Donat declined to disclose how TrueCar will be paying DW+H but said the account will make up the revenue the agency is losing as a result of parting ways this week with eHarmony, a client of some 10 years. EHarmony spent $65.4 million across media in 2011, according to a Nielsen estimate (Nielsen numbers exclude online spending). While the online dating site went into review as early as November, it has yet to announce a new lead creative agency. “We haven't laid anybody off as a result of the eHarmony transition,” said Donat. “We're hiring.”