Campbell-Ewald looks beyond Chevy

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The agency obscured in the shadow of Chevrolet has come into its own.

Campbell-Ewald -- once stereotyped as a captive General Motors Corp. shop -- has been working at a furious clip these past two years, averaging more than one new-account win per month, reaping an estimated $450 million billings windfall since the summer of 1998. The streak started with co-op business for Mercury Marine, an outboard motor company, and came to include marquee brand names such as Amway Corp., Borders Group, Pier 1 Imports and Univision Communications that added to its cornerstone GM account.

GM now represents just more than 50% of the agency's billings, compared with more than 80% five years ago. That's not to say its fortunes aren't still tied to GM. Detroit was buzzing last week that the shop may have to lay off or reassign up to 100 people following the carmaker's consolidation of media planning at Bcom3's Starcom MediaVest Holdings. Campbell-Ewald said it's too early to tell how the consolidation will impact staffing.

BEYOND DETROIT

The agency is expanding in other ways beyond simply bringing in new clients. By the end of 2001, Campbell-Ewald -- which already has units dedicated to database, direct, event and loyalty marketing, and digital solutions -- also plans to have expanded geographically by buying a Gulf Coast ad agency. It will also have beefed up its digital and direct capabilities with four or five acquisitions.

This overnight success has been a long time coming. Chairman-CEO Tony Hopp dates the transition to July 1996, when he became CEO and began to lay the groundwork for a systematic new business unit; diversification from its automotive base; and a new management team. "We're in the business of changing perceptions, and we really had to take a look at ourselves," Mr. Hopp said.

Billings growth during 1997 was just 9%, but it spiked 16% the next year when the new-business division was launched, and another 33% -- to $1.7 billion -- in 1999. Managing Director Jim Palmer said new business and acquisitions should push billings in 2000 to better than $1.85 billion, up 9%.

"I don't know how they could handle it if they did any better. They're getting some heavy-duty clients right now," said a search consultant who asked for anonymity.

Based in Warren, Mich., the geographically challenged agency doesn't take itself too seriously. At the first meeting with Pier 1 -- where the team had to fight for a place at the table -- they ran a Monty Python-esque, 2-minute, dialogue-free video with a lounge music score. It showed the pitch team going into a Pier 1 and coming out with a haul; the pitch leader flying through the air like Superman; a top creative sitting swami-like on a Pier 1 rug, surrounded by Pier 1 candles; and the president of integrated accounts dancing with a loaf of french bread. "Shamelessness works," said Bill Ludwig, chief creative officer. "Clients become irritated with the personalities at some agencies."

SETTING A TONE

Said Mr. Palmer: "Clients have to like you a little bit, you know. We're setting a tone here. This is an ad agency -- they're not hiring a bank."

But it's not just congeniality that's helped Interpublic Group of Cos.' fourth largest agency (after McCann-Erickson Worldwide, Lowe Lintas & Partners Worldwide and Draft Worldwide) expand both billings and staff by more than 30% last year. And overall, its rank climbed from the country's 16th largest agency to the 15th in 1999.

Campbell-Ewald executives credit their anthropological approach for helping them win accounts.

For longtime client Continental Airlines' OnePass program, Campbell-Ewald consultants met arriving planes at Houston and Denver, and offered first-class passengers free limo rides if they'd answer questions about what they want in a frequent flier program. In researching Pier 1, agency anthropologists/consultants intercepted shoppers on their way into stores and offered to pay their tab if they'd agree to be followed around and questioned about their experiences at the furniture/housewares chain.

The result? A print and TV campaign breaking later this month expected to focus on the young, carefree, edgy nature of Pier 1 consumers. The first spots will not use spokeswoman Kirstie Alley -- who is honoring the Screen Actors Guild strike -- although magazine ads featuring her break in October magazines.

To woo Conoco, Campbell-Ewald interviewed staff there who thought the energy company was an industry leader -- as well as Wall Street analysts who said otherwise. Telling a potential $15 million client they have an elevated sense of self was a pretty gutsy move, but it helped the agency beat 27 contenders for the account. Conoco signed on in July 1999, and a "Think Big. Move Fast" campaign stressing speed and nimbleness broke in November.

"One of the things we liked about [Campbell-Ewald] was that they were very straightforward, very honest. We admire that kind of thing. We want straight talk," said Conoco's Manager-Corporate Advertising Tom DeCola.

BISSELL WIN

Female-targeted anthropological research also helped Campbell-Ewald clean up with Bissell's $20 million account in May. The resulting effort for its new QuickSteamer carpet cleaner breaking in late summer will show a sturdy guy espousing lines generally attributed to women: "I can't concentrate with a messy house." "When did I become my mother?" and "Do I look like a maid?"

The tack might seem similar to Leo Burnett Toronto's Special K ad that had male bar patrons lamenting their figures and the fact that they had their mothers' chunky thighs. But Mr. Ludwig said there's been a lot of gender-swapping in ads and that the agency took that direction with Bissell because focus groups indicated the products were so effective and efficient they would make anyone a better, enthusiastic housekeeper.

In other words, said Cynthia Sikorski, associate director of Campbell-Ewald's Women to Women Communications Group, "Women loved seeing a man on his hands and knees, cleaning."

Mr. Palmer attributes the agency's new-business run -- which also includes recent dot-com wins of ImproveNet, Alloutdoors.com and iCan -- to staying one step ahead of the competition.

ARMY PITCH

When pitching the U.S. Army's $95 million business, which ultimately went to Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, Campbell-Ewald sent along a 1-by-2 foot box in camouflage hues. In it was a similarly tinted proposal; flashlight with a sticker that read "brings more recruits to light"; a compass with another sticker reading "will discover qualified leads"; and trading cards with pictures and information about the pitch team.

"We are as creative as we can be at every stage of the competition," Mr. Palmer said. "We try to win at every stage."

So, it can be argued, do other shops. But a second consultant who asked to remain anonymous said that while many agencies try to distinguish themselves with similar showmanship, the band from Campbell-Ewald does it better than most. "Good content with no energy doesn't often win out. Great dog-and-pony shows with no content don't do well, either," he said.

Campbell-Ewald "did a terrific job of digging in and doing their homework," said the consultant on the Army review, David Beals, CEO-president of Jones Lundin Beals, Chicago.

Mr. Palmer said he believed his agency was edged out because Burnett devoted more time to possible recruiting strategies, which Campbell-Ewald executives felt the Army had established.

What aided it in getting to the final round in the Army review was Campbell-Ewald's 78-year Chevrolet experience, which provided insight to Middle America and the psyche of people pondering important decisions -- such as a pricey car purchase or career shift, said Mr. Beals and Campbell-Ewald executives.

BIG AND INTEGRATED

Though the agency is proud of that GM relationship, it can be viewed as a $700 million-plus albatross, according to outsiders, who note the agency must fight to change perceptions that it's almost an in-house GM shop.

"At first blush, it's like `Who are they? Aren't they a Chevy-dominated agency? Can we get what we want out of Detroit?' But when [prospective clients] get to know them, it's a pleasant surprise," said the second consultant. "They don't realize how big and integrated Campbell-Ewald is."

Even though the we-aren't-just-Chevy-anymore refrain echoes the halls at Campbell-Ewald -- headquartered across the street from the sprawling GM Tech center -- it's done well by the country's No. 1 advertiser. The agency developed tags "Like a rock" for Chevy trucks; "We'll be there" for cars; and the classics "Heartbeat of America" and "See the USA in your Chevrolet" for the division.

It also won GM's estimated $40 million OnStar account in February 1999 after handling direct mail and a regional TV assignment since 1998.

Mike McEnaney, executive director-sales and marketing at OnStar, GM's in-vehicle telecommunications unit, cited Campbell-Ewald's "really good strategic thinking and creative [for winning the account]. One of the things Campbell-Ewald brings to OnStar is a really great understanding of the automotive business."

$95 MIL DISAPPOINTMENT

Even though the Army was a $95 million disappointment, it allowed the shop to point to the world-class agencies it bested to reach the finals with Burnett: Arnold Communications, DDB Worldwide, Ogilvy & Mather and more.

"Historically we've been an awesome automotive powerhouse. We're a lot more than that. It's time to come out of the closet," Mr. Hopp said. "This is a vastly different Campbell-Ewald than several years ago."

Beating out creatively lauded agencies, in fact, has gotten to be old hat, with Campbell-Ewald's list of also-rans on other wins including FCB Worldwide (Conoco), BBDO Worldwide (Pier 1) Merkley Newman Harty (Conoco) and Mullen (OnStar).

There have been losses, too. In January, after 18 months, TiVo shifted its estimated $25 million account to Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco -- a move Mr. Palmer attributed to the interactive TV service marketer's wanting a sexier agency to present to its investors. Campbell-Ewald also parted ways in 1999 with its five-year client OfficeMax, a $65 million account, after management changes at the office superstore. The business is now at Publicis in Mid America, Chicago.

EXPANSION A PRIORTY

Mr. Palmer said expanding beyond the Midwest -- and its other full-service shop in Los Angeles -- is a top priority for his agency. He said he hopes by mid-October to have inked deals to buy the Gulf Coast ad agency he won't identify, as well as a direct shop.

"I don't want to lose on location," he said, standing beside his 10-story suburban Detroit office building -- one of a handful of high-rises in the suburb. "Second place is not a comfortable place. We don't want to do all that hard work [to win a pitch] and lose because of the location of our home office."

Contributing: Jean Halliday

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