GM: 'No favorites' in Saturn showdown

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General Motors Corp.'s Saturn Corp. hears agency presentations this week for the fall launch of its new Ion small car, which will replace its mainstay S-Series. The launch could well account for the bulk of the brand's estimated $300 million annual ad budget-and it could lead to a shift of the entire business.

C.J. Fraleigh, GM's executive director of advertising and corporate marketing, told Advertising Age criteria include strategy, creative and ability to service the account. Saturn executives will hear agency pitches with Mr. Fraleigh and John Middlebrook, VP-general manager of vehicle brand marketing, advertising and corporate marketing.

"Riney is aggressively going after it," Mr. Middlebrook said of incumbent Publicis Groupe's Publicis & Hal Riney, San Francisco.

Mr. Fraleigh said a winner will be picked soon. "There are no favorites," he said.

Each agency will get three hours to make its pitch. What follows is a look at the finalists, with their auto track records and insight from industry executives.

* D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles: Bcom3 Group shop pitching from New York with assist from Troy, Mich., office. At least one contender is betting on D'Arcy. Said to have sparkled on capabilities in round-one. Big question is whether GM wants to park another car here since D'Arcy's Troy office does Cadillac and Pontiac. Patrick Sherwood, Troy-based North American president, was one of first account executives on Saturn at Riney and can charm. Some observers cite reputation and presentation skills of Gary Topolewski, exec VP and top Troy creative.

* Goodby, Silverstein & Partners: While the Omnicom Group-owned San Francisco agency is formidable, it's not high on observers' radar. Will test muscle of creative Jamie Barrett, hired from Publicis' Fallon, New York, with stints at TBWA/Chiat/Day and Wieden. Handles advertising for niche player American Isuzu Motors, 49% owned by GM. Rick Balsiger, Isuzu's VP-sport utility vehicle product planning, said he has commitment from Goodby that Isuzu team would stay if shop gets Saturn.

* McCann-Erickson: Interpublic Group of Cos. agency pitching from New York with assist from offices including Troy, which has Buick and GM corporate. Many believe McCann has best chance to win. New business team has good track record. Has capabilities to handle regional dealer ads; LCI unit already buys GM spot TV. Messrs. Middlebrook and Fra-leigh have raved about McCann's 0% interest and new corporate "Overdrive" ads.

* Publicis & Hal Riney: Saturn agency since the division started selling small cars in 1990 as customer-friendly, "different kind of car company." Not given good odds in light of review. But don't count it out given lauded work on account. One industry observer said if changing strategy and redefining Saturn is client's main mission, Riney may have tricky time reinventing Saturn.

* Wieden & Kennedy: Portland, Ore., independent is seen as long shot but could prove case on reaching young target with its Nike work. London office's 2001 win of Honda's $42.5 million U.K. account shows agency is finally shaking off ghosts of Subaru of America, the car account Wieden lost in 1994.

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