American Honda Motor Co. insists its longtime shop, RPA -- which has been running model-clearance ads featuring an animated character that "knocks" on the TV screen -- is secure on the national account. But auto-hungry agencies, straining to hear sounds of discontent with the agency of record, are encouraged that new regional Honda dealer groups -- each with budgets additional to the national spending-are looking outside RPA.
"It's a much-needed shot across the bow" of RPA, claimed a former Honda insider who asked not to be named.
41 dealer associations
The renewed interest in dealer marketing was sparked by Honda simplifying the process for collecting local marketing dollars. So far, 30 dealer associations have sprung up for Honda and 11 for Acura, a spokesman said. (In April 1994, in a bid to better control the ad process, Honda eliminated 81 regional dealer associations and shifted regional duties to RPA. Dealers in Southern California and Ohio unsuccessfully sued Honda to stop the change.)
Though the current dealer groups collectively spent only $35 million in measured media last year, their outlay is growing rapidly as the groups multiply. "We have not encouraged RPA to go after them because we keep [the agency] extremely busy," the spokesman said.
Honda's Southern California dealer group is close to naming a shop from among finalists Ground Zero, Los Angeles; Cimarron Group, Hollywood; Secret Weapon, Santa Monica; and Siltanen & Partners, Marina del Rey. No longer in the running: RPA affiliate Open Minds.
A Northern California dealer group has begun a search, and other groups have been formed covering part of New York City, Wisconsin and Pittsburgh.
Honda ad VP
Eric Conn, assistant VP-national advertising at the American Honda Motor Co., pooh-poohed the notion that RPA is losing its grip on the automaker's account. "RPA has been here for 32 years. I don't think they're going anywhere."
Bill Hagelstein, exec VP-chief operating officer at RPA, said dealer groups are taking the initiative because they are finding themselves outspent by larger competitors, particularly Toyota. "They have a desire to get more ad clout against Toyota," he said. "We are staying out of it unless we are asked to participate."
Whispers about the account began last year when Tom Elliott, exec VP and the top marketing executive at Honda, retired last year after 15 years. Mr. Elliott was particularly close to RPA founders Gerry Rubin and Larry Postaer, who are active in the agency but have somewhat scaled back. His successor, John Mendel-described as a "change agent" by the former Honda insider-arrived in December.
RPA has 500 employees and has not picked up significant new business beyond Honda. Pioneer Electronics' big-screen TV is its only other major account.
Wieden & Kennedy
Noticeably absent from the round of regional reviews is Wieden & Kennedy, which has been doing award-winning work for Honda in Europe. It's also been building its automotive muscle, hiring Tom Blessington from TBWA/Chiat/Day, where he headed the Nissan and Infiniti accounts.
"We're not in the dealer reviews," said Dave Luhr, chief operating officer at Wieden. "We'd love to work with an entire car brand-the dealers' business and the brand business-and that's what we're going to wait for."
But it could be a long wait. The former Honda insider said that dealers have largely shunned RPA precisely because it moves in lockstep with the automaker's management. "The client is very conservative, and in my view the agency acquiesced to their wishes," the executive said, which is why the shop has such "a strong hold on Honda's national account."