AMMIRATI SCORES GM BUSINESS;NEW ASSIGNMENT IS BELIEVED TO BE CORPORATE TECHNOLOGY IMAGE-EFFORT

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Ammirati & Puris/Lintas has picked up its first assignment from General Motors Corp., bringing on board a significant agency contender to fight for a share of the automaker's $2 billion advertising and promotions budget.

Although GM won't yet disclose details, insiders said Ammirati's assignment will involve new technology, including an electronic navigation system, to be announced Feb. 9 by Rick Wagoner, president of GM's North American Operations, at the Chicago Auto Show.

TECH AT CADILLAC FIRST

Advertising won't begin until fall, when the technology first shows up on a Cadillac model.

Hiring New York-based Ammirati is just the latest indication that GM is turning up the competitive heat on its agencies. In December, Philip Guarascio, VP-general manager for North American marketing and advertising, disclosed that the automaker will standardize the way it assesses advertising for its vehicle divisions, a step that could pave the way for incentive-based compensation.

ULTIMATE DRIVING MACHINE

Ammirati, prior to merging with Lintas Worldwide in 1994, handled BMW of North America for 18 years and developed the "ultimate driving machine" positioning still used by the German auto marketer.

Ever since Ammirati parted with BMW of North America in late '92, the agency has been linked by rumor to a number of other car accounts.

Ammirati pitched GM's Olds-mobile account in 1993 before the division decided to retain incumbent Leo Burnett USA, Chicago. The agency also has been said to be interested in Cadillac, an estimated $180 million account now at D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

While billings are not expected to be significant, the new assignment puts Ammirati in position to try to win future work for Oldsmobile or Cadillac if either of those divisions can't reverse downward sales trends (see related story, Page 30).

Two of Ammirati's sister Interpublic Group of Cos. agencies already handle major pieces of GM business. Campbell-Ewald, Warren, has Chevrolet, while McCann-Erickson, Troy, has Buick and its McCann/SAS unit GMC.

DMB&B is agency for Pontiac, and GM's other vehicle brand, Saturn, is handled by Hal Riney & Partners, San Francisco.

CORPORATE-IMAGE EFFORT

The new Ammirati assignment is viewed as a GM corporate-image effort to improve its reputation on the technology front, which is why the announcement will made by Mr. Wagoner.

In that regard, this assignment is a blow to N.W. Ayer & Partners, New York and Detroit, which handles an estimated $20 million in corporate advertising.

A GM spokesman said the company has used Ammirati in the past for some research projects, but said the automaker "hasn't officially contracted" with the agency to do any advertising.

Industry executives familiar with the new technology said it will combine a cellular telephone with a global positioning satellite receiver in the car.

Like a system that debuted on the 1996 Lincoln Continental, it will enable a user to call for emergency help by pressing a button, with someone at a customer assistance center able to immediately locate the car and send assistance.

Pat Sloan and Mark Gleason contributed to this story.

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