But that changed last summer, thanks to Ford Motor Co.'s multiyear deal for all its brands with Outdoor Systems, the largest out-of-home operator.
The contract gives Ford more than 100 prime-location boards in at least 20 major markets.
Ford executives say the $50-million-plus package wouldn't have been possible before the April 1997 formation of Ford's dedicated media buyer -- Ford Motor Media, Detroit.
TOPS $1 BILLION
The J. Walter Thompson Co. subsidiary buys more than $1 billion in media annually for Ford and its brands.
"This outdoor buy was the best example of why you need to consolidate media buying," says Ian Beavis, marketing communications manager for Lincoln Mercury. Before Ford consolidated media buying, he explains, "the divisions were paying a premium to get in and out of billboard deals and tripping over each other."
Outdoor is now easily integrated into the brands' media plans. Lincoln is currently using outdoor for its 1999 Navigator sport-utility vehicle and will again use outdoor for the spring launch of its LS sedan.
Mercury was the first Ford brand to take advantage of the deal when it launched Cougar last year.
The outdoor deal "has really been tremendous for Lincoln Mercury," says Mr. Beavis.
The auto marketer couldn't have done the outdoor deal without its consolidated media buyer, says David Ropes, director of corporate advertising at Ford. Now brands under Ford's umbrella can tap into the inventory when they need it.
Ford Motor Media has freed up media planning and marketing teams at the agencies and their Ford-brand clients to formulate more innovative packages with media partners, says. Mr. Ropes.
Media ideas come not only from the agencies and brand teams but from Mr. Ropes' corporate staff and Ford Motor Media.
The brands include Lincoln and Mercury, handled by Y&R Advertising, Irvine, Calif. and San Francisco; Ford Division, handled by JWT, Detroit; Mazda, at Doner, Southfield, Mich.; and Jaguar with Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, New York.
The outdoor package was the brainchild of Mark Kaline, broadcast director and media manager at Ford corporate central media group.
"Mark Kaline was the one to recognize the problem that when we were purchasing outdoor we could only buy based on availability and our needs were short term," says Mr. Ropes. "His concept was to have a corporate inventory."
Wally Kelly, senior VP at Outdoor Systems, described the deal as unusual in the auto industry because car companies traditionally signed long-term contracts in individual markets, not national deals.
Now armed with experience and a new measurement system, Ford has established benchmarks to determine effectiveness under consolidation, says Mr. Ropes. He declined to be more specific.
The consolidation is saving Ford money, though Mr. Ropes won't say how much.
Ford's pact with Outdoor Systems is just one of several multiyear or multimedia deals in the past year. Mr. Ropes credits Ford's media consolidation for helping to pave the way for these contracts.
Last fall, Ford signed its first multiyear publishing deal covering all its brands with Time Inc. and Hachette Filipacchi Magazines. Also in the fall, Ford started a multimedia deal with News Corp. on its network, cable TV and Internet properties. Last August, Ford inked a $5-million, one-year contract with Martha Stewart Living OmniMedia for a multimedia ad package.
In January, Ford started consolidating its Yellow Pages buying at TMP Worldwide, New York. TMP, which already had Ford Division's account, now handles Lincoln Mercury and Mazda for the Yellow Pages.
In the past, media planning had several cycles annually, but now it's a yearlong venture, Mr. Beavis says. He predicts many more multiyear deals from Ford Motor Media.
Ford's media buyer is able to put such deals together after looking over all the brands' plans for a big-picture approach.
Since the media consolidation, Lincoln Mercury has been honing its planning and targeting better by lifestyle and psychographics, he says.
The two brands are better targeting their magazine buys with fewer mass publications, adding more cable TV to better reach prospects and less network. Lincoln Mercury is buying fewer banner ads on broad-based Web sites, yet it has more than doubled its Web ad budget in the last 12 months for better matches.