Despite his company's rapid success, Mr. Avis grew restive and, in 1954, sold the company to Boston financier Richard Robie for an estimated $8 million. Over the next three-plus decades, Avis changed hands nine times, starting with Lazard Freres and going on to ITT Corp., Norton Simon, Esmark, Beatrice Cos., Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. and Wesray Capital Corp. In 1987, an employee stock ownership plan bought the company for $1.75 billion, including debt assumption. In 1996, employees sold the company to HFS Inc.
But for all the news Avis made on the financial page over the years, no story was as big as when it changed ad agencies in 1963, dumping McCann-Erickson and turning to hot creative shop Doyle Dane Bernbach. Avis wanted DDB so desperately that its new chairman, Robert Townsend, told DDB creative guru William Bernbach that if the agency would take the account, he would run the ads without any changes.
"We try harder"
Initially, Mr. Townsend regretted that carte blanche when DDB came up with one of the most controversial—and revolutionary—campaigns in the history of American advertising. The first print ad, designed by DDB art director Helmut Krone with copy by Paula Green, appeared in March 1963. It was headlined, "Avis is only No. 2 in rent a cars. So why go with us?" The body copy began, "We try harder. (When you're not the biggest, you have to.)"
A storm of controversy followed, with criticism heaped upon both Avis and DDB for their tacit admission that Hertz led the field. But the delayed reaction was markedly positive as a series of "We're No. 2" ads issued forth from the DDB idea factory. Avis' share of the market increased by as much as 28%, and Avis came to be considered a co-leader with Hertz in the field. "We try harder" became a pop culture mantra
The "We try harder" campaign continued until 1967, when DDB switched to a new line, "Avis is winning the battle of the bugs," a reference to the company's attention to maintenance. In 1969, DDB resigned the account, which went to rival New York shop Benton & Bowles.
However, in April 1973, Avis dropped Benton & Bowles and returned to DDB, which resurrected the "We try harder" campaign in 1976. But the restive Avis soon moved its account again, this time to Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn.
By that time, Norton Simon had bought the company and its outspoken chairman, David Mahoney, wanted a celebrity spokesman. Film actor Glenn Ford starred in BBDO's spots, but Mr. Mahoney believed the resulting commercials were unsatisfactory,
In 1982, following a review, McCaffrey & McCall became Avis' new agency, and Mr. Mahoney became the company's spokesman in TV spots. The results were lackluster, however, and Avis licensees selected another agency, Bozell & Jacobs, to handle their advertising.
In 1985, Avis switched agencies again, this time going to Ted Bates & Co.. That fall, the new agency broke a "So easy" campaign, concentrating on younger business travelers and using music from Creedence Clearwater Revival. In 1988, Avis' agency, now Backer, Spielvogel, Bates, once again revived the "We try harder" approach, this time using actress Jamie Lee Curtis in TV spots.
In 1991, another creative shift occurred. Four years after Avis became employee-owned, the agency broke the "So why rent from anyone but an owner?" TV campaign, which featured company employees on-camera emphasizing service. But in 1997, the "We try harder" campaign tag was revived yet again, with Bates USA handling the account.
In June 1999, Avis again threw its account into review, and Bates resigned, citing creative and strategic differences. Later that year, McCann-Erickson Worldwide won the account, but by that time Avis had dropped to No. 5 in the car rental category.
Like Avis' advertising relationships, its ownership seemed always to be in turmoil. In fall 1996, the employees sold out to HFS, a large franchiser of hotels and real estate brokerage offices. HFS oversaw an initial public offering of Avis stock in 1997. The same year, the company briefly became part of Cendant Corp.; soon after, Cendant, an international hotel franchiser, spun off all but 18% of Avis.
In August 2000, Cendant was back, this time with a $742 million offer for the entire company. In March 2001, Cendant completed its acquisition of the portion of Avis Group Holdings it did not already own for $33 per share in cash, or approximately $937 million.