An ‘Unagency’ for the ‘Uncar’

Smart went an unorthodox route in putting together a campaign to introduce its cars to the U.S.

For the first national American marketing campaign for the tiny Smart Car, Tracey Matura decided to do something a bit different.

Rather than give the relatively small assignment to a single agency, the general manager of Smart USA pooled staffers from three shops already working on sister brand Mercedes-Benz. Merkley + Partners was tasked with traditional ads, Razorfish with digital, and Sage Collective with events.

It was a bold move. Smart has a long way to go, and it’s a key part of Mercedes-Benz USA’s strategy, if only because it’s essential to the company’s efforts to meet new federal miles-per-gallon standards for its entire fleet. (Smart’s coupes and cabriolet average 33 mpg in city driving

and 41 mpg on highways.)

Matura could have followed the path already blazed by Smart rival Mini Cooper, a division of BMW, which employs a smaller shop (Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners) unconnected to the mother brand. But she chose to break the mold. Both Mini and Smart are niche brands with fewer dollars, so the fresh, small-ball approach makes sense. Still, Matura needed to get to market quickly, and she wanted to leverage the muscle and resources of larger shops, a Smart representative tells Adweek.

The team Matura assembled has taken to calling itself The Unagency, a nod to its positioning of Smart as the “uncar.” It is certainly different. Each of the nearly 20 people behind the campaign remains attached to his or her respective shop, making it an agency in spirit only. In fact, most of the team also works on other accounts. And these aren’t just car-account veterans. Only about half of the group has worked on Mercedes in the past. That was important to Matura, who wanted a fresh perspective, a Smart rep says. (Matura, who assumed the top job at Smart USA in July, was not available for an interview last week.)

“Unclutter,” the second ad put together by this team, is about to debut, a month after the first “Unbig” ad ran. The early work positions the brand as an alternative to bombast and sensory overload.

Smart and its virtual agency have their work cut out for them. Before the campaign began, a J.D. Power survey revealed that Smart, a mainstay in overseas markets, had the lowest brand awareness among all car brands in the U.S.—50 percent of the respondents were unaware of its existence. They’ll have some money to play with, though. Annual media spending for Smart is expected to fall in the $20-$30 million range—about a tenth of what Mercedes spent last year, according to Nielsen.