Scott Keogh, Audi's first chief marketing officer, opened the review shortly after joining the automaker in May, and four shops were invited: incumbent McKinney & Silver, Durham, N.C., which has had Audi's account since 1993; Publicis Groupe-backed Bartle Bogle Hegarty, New York, and Venables Bell, a San Francisco-based independent. Publicis' Fallon, Minneapolis, withdrew from the review in mid-November shortly after its presentation.
Venables Bell will handle Audi's national and regional advertising and promotions, but will not be responsible for media planning. Media buying wasn't part of the pitch and remains with WPP Group's MediaCom.
Mr. Keogh said Audi was impressed with how Venables Bell laid out the brand's opportunities in the U.S. and that the transition is immediate, with the first real glimpse of the shop's work coming next spring for the redone TT sports car.
Blow to incumbent
The move is a major blow to McKinney as Audi was its biggest client.
The agency developed the tagline "Never Follow" for the brand in 2002, but its work was uneven and sometimes even controversial. McKinney's TV commercials for the A4 sedan didn't mention the car's bigger size, improved, optional V-6 engine and technological advances. The agency said it wanted to focus on the excitement of driving the car.
In fall 2004, the agency used the mathematical sign for "greater than" in ads to clarify and bolster the "Never Follow" theme for the 2005 A6 sedan. McKinney said it didn't pre-test the ads, but that because Audi owners are educated they will understand the math sign.
Brad Brinegar, chairman-CEO, McKinney, in a statement said, "When McKinney won the account in 1993, Audi was on its way to being pulled from the American market. Since then, we have helped them rebound to become one of the premier brands in its category, growing 12 of the past 13 years, posting record sales in 5 of the last 7 years (including 2006), growing to seven times the size it was when we were hired. We wish the very best to the many friends that we made at Audi over the past 13 years."
Chasing car accounts
Venables Bell was founded in June 2001 by two creative directors from Omnicom Group's Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, Paul Venables and Greg Bell. The agency last year had chased BMW of North America's account, which Fallon famously handled for a decade before declining to defend the business. And Mr. Keogh, a former Mercedes-Benz USA executive, knows Venables Bell from when it was a finalist in the Smart car pitch a few years ago that he oversaw.
Mr. Venables, co-creative director and founder of the shop, which has about 100 employees, said the win "is a vote once again for creative, innovative and independent agencies," adding it will help define the shop. Mr. Venables said the shop will "use all media and the brave new marketing world in every way to surprise and delight potential customers." He added that the San Francisco area is "ahead of the game" on new media because so much of it originates in Silicon Valley.
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Alice Z. Cuneo and Lisa Sanders contributed to this report.