Audi taps ad whiz to direct branding

Automaker promotes wunderkind Berkov as part of marketing reorganization

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Audi of america marketing wunderkind Stephen Berkov is moving to California in a new role June 1 with the automaker, which plans to reorganize its marketing department.

The dynamic 37-year-old executive has seriously taken to heart Audi's tagline, "Never follow." He was behind the marketer's "Art of the heist" Web push in which consumers were asked to solve a phony theft of an Audi from a Manhattan showroom. He sent bloggers cross-country and asked them to document the trip in the Audi A3. Mr. Berkov pushed the automaker deeper into branded entertainment and bemoaned the Dilbert-like environment in many U.S. corporations as idea-killers at Advertising Age's Madison + Vine conference last year. He also espouses "acupuncture or pinpoint marketing," which he describes as "you go narrow and deep."

One of the first things the inveterate risk-taker did after he arrived in the U.S. was to disband Audi's e-business team and reduce spending for online infrastructure, with more money for messaging uniformity. He said at the time he "wanted it integrated because it blurred the brand too much." Customer-relationship management was also consolidated into his 10-person team.

Now, he's being named director-brand marketing and innovation, a title that will encompass all brand communications, dealer marketing, product placement and branded entertainment. He'll be based in or near Audi's design center, which opened in Santa Monica, Calif., in January.

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Instead of naming a successor to the marketing director's job, Audi is quietly conducting a search via a headhunter for a VP-marketing. Unlike Mr. Berkov's current job, that position will include training, as well as research and pricing. Audi has never had a VP-marketing in the U.S.

Johan de Nysschen, exec VP in charge of the German automaker in this country, is leading the charge on the changes. Mr. de Nysschen already plans to move Audi out of Volkswagen of America's headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich., to make it more independent.

Neither man could be reached for comment.

Audi is stronger on the East Coast than the West, but has a very good opportunity to expand its reach in trend-setting California, said Dan Gorrell, VP of industry consultant Strategic Vision. Audi's challenges include brand awareness and a perception of less quality from years ago before improvements.

Yet Audi has been riding a wave of success as it tries to take on bigger players like BMW and Mercedes-Benz. The automaker said last week that its U.S. April vehicle sales were the second best in its history, at 7,412 units. Audi said it sold 25,296 vehicles in the first four months of 2006, a 5% jump from a year ago.

Since Mr. Berkov's arrival, the brand's ad budget has jumped considerably, from $63 million in 2004 to $92 million last year, according to TNS Media Intelligence.

He's spent it smartly. His first launch was the successful into of the A3, backed with $15.7 million in measured media last year but packing a larger punch thanks to the buzz-building online campaigns for the new small car. Both were interactive and engaged consumers, taking Audi's Web site traffic to new heights.

Next up for Mr. Berkov: The Q7 sport utility. He told Advertising Age last month that Audi will launch Q7 ads in June. He said ads in all media, including online, will carry an "auditory brand signature ... an unforgettable chord." Audi is in the midst of a 10-city "Streets of Tomorrow" tour for the Q7 offering prospects test drives in a high-end lifestyle setting with gourmet food, live entertainment and lectures on exotic travel stop.

Havas' McKinney & Silver, Raleigh, N.C., handles Audi's national creative. Independent Enlighten, Ann Arbor, Mich., is Audi's interactive shop.
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