Acura decision elevates Suissa to new heights

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In American Honda Motor Co.'s $100 million Acura review, it was the enthusiasm and commitment of scrappy winner Suissa Miller that edged out proven Rubin Postaer & Associates, the Honda agency.

Eric Conn, American Honda's senior manager of automotive advertising, said there was "no clear winner" in the selection committee's early deliberations over the four finalists, which also included incumbent Fathom, Los Angeles, and Deutsch, Santa Monica, Calif.

UNANIMOUS FOR SUISSA

After a series of meetings over a week, the five-member committee unanimously recommended Santa Monica-based Suissa Miller to Japanese management, he said. The shop's billings will double.

The final choice last week startled the losers--and winner. During the review, a top executive at one finalist vowed to quit and become a waiter if Suissa Miller won.

Chairman-Executive Creative Director David Suissa said he hopes to debrief Acura "and find out why we won."

Ketchum Advertising, which launched the car in 1986, took on the new name of Fathom and shuffled management to keep the business, but the odds were against it.

DEALERS OPPOSED INCUMBENT

Although Acura Exec VP Rich Thomas denied he privately expressed reluctance to tell dealers he was staying with the incumbent, "it would be hard to not remember that the dealers have been aggressively opposed to Ketchum," said Richard Kull, a Pompano Beach, Fla., dealer who sat in on pitches.

When Omnicom Group last December offered to buy parent Ketchum Communications, it proposed a $10 million contingency in the event Acura, its biggest account, left.

Omnicom later dropped that contingency in part because it didn't want to send the client the wrong message, says one insider. Omnicom accounted for the potential loss in a smaller, broad contingency clause, and the $51 million buyout closed shortly after Acura went into review in May.

Omnicom Chairman-CEO Bruce Crawford said no decisions have been made on Fathom's future. Some executives expect Omnicom to sell the office to management.

AWAITING ORACLE MOVE

Fathom is waiting to hear if its biggest remaining client, software seller Oracle Corp., will proceed with what could be a $100 million brand campaign.

Fathom spent nearly $1 million on its Acura pitch, said one insider. That's far more than the combined expenses of the other three.

Mr. Crawford denied Fathom spent anything close to $1 million, however. "Expenses were minimal," he said.

Suissa Miller says it spent just a few thousand dollars more than the $25,000 Acura gave each agency.

"They did what they were asked to do. Some of the others went a little bit beyond," said one review insider.

Fathom even had therapists lined up in the event of a victory to dissipate any lingering anger over the review.

Suissa Miller doesn't have an ad industry image for the "standout creative" that Mr. Conn in May listed as a high priority. It does, however, fit many of Mr. Conn's early criteria: Acura will work directly with agency owners. Mr. Conn said he thinks good chemistry and brand experience is more important than car experience.

"They can hire the automotive help they need," he said. "The principals are who we hired."

Mr. Conn said that during the review, Suissa Miller committed to him that it won't be sold. Rubin Postaer, which in recent years has passed on buyout inquiries, also made a commitment not to sell, said President Gerrold Rubin.

Suissa Miller offered "good" creative and strategic thinking, Mr. Conn said. Acura hasn't decided whether to use Suissa Miller's spec creative for the first new campaign, expected early next year.

MEDIA SCRUTINY AHEAD?

Mr. Conn said Honda in the first quarter likely will reopen a media-buying evaluation, on hold since the Acura review began.

Interpublic Group of Cos.-owned Western International Media will have an in: Western is Suissa Miller's main buying service and will handle Acura media on an interim basis. Western Chairman Dennis Holt, a friend of Mr. Suissa, also knows Honda media and review consultant Herb Zeltner, who last year managed a media evaluation for Western client Walt Disney Co.

Hiring a media service has been "one of the possibilities" under consideration, and Suissa Miller's experience with a service "may help our analysis even further," Mr. Conn said. He stressed that nothing has been decided.

Mr. Rubin, whose agency buys media for the estimated $240 million Honda division national and retail account, vowed to "fiercely defend our position" on Honda and go after Acura buying should media go up for review.

In the Acura review, Rubin Postaer lost points because of concerns Acura would be a stepchild to the Honda account, and that Honda would be overly dependent on one agency, one executive said. Committee members also discussed the agency's future; Mr. Rubin is 56 and Exec VP-Creative Director Larry Postaer, 58.

Mr. Rubin tried to hit those issues head on in his presentation, offering to set up a separate agency to handle Acura. He pitched a cradle-to-grave scenario showing how Rubin Postaer could make Civic owners into Acura drivers.

ONE IS NOT ENOUGH

Mr. Rubin now concludes handing everything to one agency "was just not acceptable" to Honda. Also, after the agency lost, Mr. Conn told him the agency's strategic ideas weren't quite in sync with the division's plans.

Deutsch, a Volkswagen of America finalist last year, was generally considered a long shot because of its edgy creative and, rivals said, the strong personality of CEO Donny Deutsch.

Contributing: Mark Gleason, Laura Petrecca.


Who is Suissa Miller

Who: David Suissa, 40, the charismatic chairman-executive creative director. Born in Morocco, raised in Montreal. Ex-brand manager on Ivory soap in Canada for Procter & Gamble Co. Bruce Miller, 44, president. Stanford business grad and former brand manager on P&G's Crisco. The two worked on Paul Masson wines at Doyle Dane Bernbach, Los Angeles.

What: Mr. Suissa opened the agency in 1985, doing ads for casino/hotels and a consumer finance company. Mr. Miller joined in '91, tiring of big agencies with their "chatty Cathy doll excuses" like "we can't do this because it's a conflict with an office in Nicaragua." At that time, Mr. Suissa said his goal was to bring in "multinational clients," such as a car account, "willing to roll the dice on smaller, offbeat shops."
Pre-Acura: $120 million in billings and 82 employees.

Clients: Virtually its entire roster has turned over since 1993. Formerly handled Surf Fetish, a clothing maker; current agency for Bosley Medical Institute, a chain of hair restoration clinics. Other clients include Boston Market, Hunt-Wesson, Dole Food Co.'s fresh vegetables and Jenny Craig International. Also HomeBase, Andrew Jergens Co., Ralcorp Holdings' Beech-Nut baby food and SkyTel.

Reputation: Skilled presenters, with compelling brand and sales success stories. "They have a pretty good case study of how they have helped Jenny Craig," said the head of a Los Angeles agency not in the Acura pitch. Buzz was growing before Acura.

Road to Acura: Consultant Herb Zeltner sent a questionnaire, and Mr. Suissa summoned Mr. Miller from a Paris vacation. They decided to use only current staff and the $25,000 Acura gave them for spec work. The money went for bagels, Starbucks, pizza and some research. "We didn't bother with a lot of silly extras," says Mr. Suissa. "Just a little flip chart and a couple of silly markers."

What now: Agency nearly doubles in size, so looking for more bodies and space.

First ads: Three or fourth months from now.

Copyright October 1996 Crain Communications Inc.

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