Trying A Shortcut To A Long Relationship

Volkswagen’s sweeping shift last week of its estimated $400 million North American creative account to Crispin Porter + Bogusky without a review illustrates what some say is the smartest, most efficient way to hire an agency. And it reinforces once again the notion that advertising, rather than being “all about the work,” as some say, is first and foremost a relationship-driven business.

VW director of brand innovation Kerri Martin worked with MDC Partners’ CP+B during her five years as marketing communications manager at BMW’s Mini Cooper, an account the Miami agency resigned to take on VW. And while the decision was not hers alone, both Martin and CP+B CEO Jeff Hicks acknowledged that familiarity was a key factor.

What’s more, with several key brand launches and relaunches planned for the next two years, VW needed to move quickly. “A lengthy review process was not in our best interests or the best interests of our dealer network,” said Martin, who was also drawn to CP+B’s nontraditional approaches to marketing. “VW needs much more than just ads in North America,” she said.

VW, which left Havas’ Arnold in Boston after 10 years, is the latest in a stream of marketers in the past 21 months to have shifted accounts without reviews. Those brands, spending a total of some $2.7 billion annually, include Subway, Miramax (media), Excedrin, eBay, Capital One, DirecTV, Levitra, Computer Associates, Braun, Nautilus, IBM (direct) and Burger King. MDC’s CP+B and Omnicom Group’s BBDO have been particularly successful at landing such business. CP+B wrested BK’s $300 million creative account from WPP Group’s Young & Rubicam in January 2004, while BBDO nabbed eBay, DirecTV and Braun from sibling Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, Interpublic Group’s Deutsch and IPG’s Lowe, respectively.

Consultants and agency CEOs say they aren’t sure that account moves without lengthy reviews are more prevalent today, but they see wisdom in the direct, under-the-radar approach and say it is just as likely to produce a long-term client-agency relationship. “It really doesn’t matter how you’re picked. You simply have to be delivering results pretty quickly today,” said Brendan Ryan, worldwide chairman of IPG’s Foote Cone & Belding. “To shift accounts without a review makes sense when people at the client know and respect the people at the agency who are going to work on their business and vice versa.”

Of course, not every quick shift sticks, particularly if there is no prior relationship. Take Goodby and Subway. The chain shifted its $300 million account to the San Francisco agency from Publicis Groupe’s Fallon last August, based on Goodby’s second-place showing in its previous review. The two had never worked together. Two months ago, the client dismissed Goodby, before it had produced a single significant campaign, and consolidated at roster shop MMB, an independent in Boston.

Consultants say direct account shifts are more likely to be made by entrepreneurial companies or those in which the marketing chiefs work closely with top management. “It’s an organization where marketing is leading the agency relationship management rather than purchasing,” said Arthur Anderson of Morgan Anderson Consulting in New York, which has counseled four such shifts in the past two years. “The CMO is closely aligned with the CEO’s objectives.”

In the case of a new CMO, a direct shift may be part of the mandate. “That person is hired to be the miracle worker,” said Joanne Davis of Joanne Davis Consulting in New York. “Unless the CEO has a relationship they don’t want shaken, the CMO will say, ‘You’re hiring me to fix something. No sacred cows.’ ”

There are other advantages. “It’s under the radar,” Anderson said. “Clients don’t always want it known that they’re making a change.”

It’s also quicker, cheaper and less laborious for everyone. “If a client really wants a certain agency, it’s more honest,” said Anomaly co-founder Carl Johnson. “I’m in favor of it, if it’s the truth. It saves a lot of time.”