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In Post-AOR Era, Mondelez Tries Multi-Agency 'Project Sprout'

One Campaign Compares Gum-Chewing to Racy Oral Pleasures

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At Mondelez International, the agency-of-record model is dying, if not dead already. Dana Anderson, the snack-and-candy marketer's senior VP of marketing strategy and communications, said as much last month in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, calling the AOR approach "no longer the pathway to Oz for clients or agencies."

But what, exactly, is on the other side of the rainbow for the maker of big brands including Oreo, Trident and Cadbury?

A new global marketing experiment called "Project Sprout" offers some clues. The project -- which Mondelez is quietly testing in Nashville, Tenn.; Austin, Texas; Brazil; Canada; and Turkey -- involves working with multiple agencies at once, while using small teams, accelerated timelines and putting an emphasis on linking advertising to short-term sales results.

Stride's 'Orally Advanced' campaign
Stride's 'Orally Advanced' campaign

The effort includes no copy testing at all, a rarity in the data-obsessed ad industry. And so far the project has produced some fairly risky advertising, including a campaign for Stride gum in Austin that makes some not-so-subtle comparisons between gum-chewing and oral sex.

The program, which got going earlier this year, is aimed at improving sales across the marketer's gum portfolio, including Trident and Dentyne, which has suffered along with the rest of the gum category. But it also could serve as a template for Mondelez to use on international campaigns in other categories.

"This is really about us thinking about global marketing differently," said Eliza Esquivel, VP of global brand strategy, who reports directly to Ms. Anderson. The project uses "small in-market experiments that then can be measured to make sure that they are working and then those can be applied … globally," she added.

The strategy differs from the usual global campaign approach that she said typically includes time-consuming tasks like data gathering, product positioning testing and involves a lot of people. All of that reduces the ability to be "nimble and responsive," Ms. Esquivel said. Under Project Sprout, the company wants to make quicker decisions and "be a little bit more fearless in our creative," she added.

Mondelez hired London Strategy Unit, a marketing strategy consultancy, to help identify four gum strategies aimed at people ages 18 to 30. Then the company selected four creative agencies -- without a formal review -- to craft the campaigns, which were launched within an accelerated timeline of eight weeks. The shops are WPP's Johannes Leonardo, Vice, Cheil Worldwide's The Barbarian Group and Party, a design-focused agency with offices in Tokyo and New York. MediaVest handled the media.

Kate McKinnon plays 'Auralie'
Kate McKinnon plays 'Auralie'

The edgiest campaign is by Vice for Stride and aims to remind adults about the "oral stimulation of gum." Ads began in Austin in late February and are running for 12 weeks. So-called "instructional videos" feature a character named "Auralie" played by Saturday Night Live's Kate McKinnon, who provides the "the definitive guide to mastication by yourself or with a friend."

The videos were distributed with geo-targeted media buys in Austin largely on Vice-owned properties. The spots include lessons on topics such as "How to Open Your Stride," which points out that "there's nothing more embarrassing than not being able to open your Stride in a moment of excitement."

"It was really about the elephant in the room about gum," Ms. Esquivel said. "It is something fun to play with in your mouth and we never talk about it in that way."

Vice, like all the agencies, was chosen without a formal pitch or review. "They are known for being quite edgy," Ms. Esquivel said. "All of it was very much tongue-in-cheek, even though it was racy."

All four projects comprised client-agency teams of just eight to 10 people. That allowed for quick decisions that were based on gut feel, rather than copy testing, said Ms. Esquivel, adding that "creativity is really all about that." Even the agency selections were lightning fast, skipping the lengthy pitch process so common in Adland.

Ms. Esquivel, who has extensive agency experience, including as head of planning for TBWA/Chiat/Day, New York, said she relied in part on her own "professional network" to pick shops.

New York-based Johannes Leonardo, which had never worked with Mondelez, was signed up after a single meeting, recalled Leo Premutico, the shop's co-founder and chief creative officer. "It all came about spontaneously," he said. "We didn't present any work to win the assignment. They were just looking at the work we created in the past and our values as a company."

The agency's campaign, called "The Chew Life," (video above) is being tested in Nashville for Trident and aims to make gum cool again by "demonstrating the effortless cool that can be found in the simple act of chewing." Ms. Esquivel called it the "Marlboro campaign for gum."

While the work went live without copy testing or a formal pitch, Mr. Premutico said that, in essence, "we are kind of doing real world research," as Mondelez evaluates the sales results in market.

Another campaign is being tested in Toronto called "Keep Life In Focus" by Party. The effort features a fashion concept called "Focus: Life Gear by Trident" made by Japanese designer Kunihiko Morinaga. Clothes are made with special material that blocks cell signals and incoming messages to mobile devices. The idea is to connect gum -- which some people chew while trying to concentrate -- with a "distraction-free lifestyle," Ms Esquivel said.

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The fourth campaign is by The Barbarian Group and is called "Look. Fresh."

Dentyne's 'Look Fresh'
Dentyne's 'Look Fresh'

It will run in Calgary, Canada; Belo Horizonte, Brazil; and Adana, Turkey. The effort includes using mirrors in outdoor advertising as a way to connect gum with feeling good about yourself.

Each campaign will be rigorously judged by short-term salest, a process that is ongoing. If the performance is positive, the campaign will be deployed in other markets with similar traits, and the agency will likely get more work. Theoretically, all four campaigns could be expanded elsewhere.

The process, in many ways, is the antithesis of the AOR approach, which in its purest form involves long-lasting and exclusive client-agency relationships.

Ms. Anderson, in the The Wall Street Journal, stated that digital advertising has created "thousands of new mediums" and that "it is just not possible for one agency to be expert in all these areas." As a result, Mondelez has "significantly expanded its roster of agencies," she wrote, growing from a "handful of agency-of-record relationships to working with over a dozen different agencies."

Eliza Esquivel
Eliza Esquivel

Ms. Esquivel said there is "not just one answer" for the best agency model. "In some instances it makes sense to have an agency of record," she said, while in other cases multiple agencies or project assignments work best.

Johannes Leonardo's Mr. Premutico said that "longer relationships obviously are helpful because you .. develop a deep understanding of the business" and can "improve things based on past learnings."

But the shop jumped at the chance to work on Project Sprout because the brief -- making gum cool again -- was ambitious, he said. Project work makes sense if "you are confident in the idea," he said. "You make an investment and hopefully more comes out of it."

But for now, the shop, like the three other agencies engaged with Mondelez, is still waiting for the results to come in.

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