IPG gambles on GM

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In a high-stakes wager, Interpublic Group of Cos. is betting that conflicts do matter to General Motors Corp. The superagency is positioning itself to fill any void left if GM has a problem with the Publicis Groupe-Bcom3 Group rollup.

Interpublic is so intent on winning GM's favor and proving loyalty that it instructed Foote, Cone & Belding Worldwide's FCB West, San Francisco and Irvine, Calif., to withdraw as a finalist last week in Hyundai Motor America's pitch, said three executives familiar with the decision.

Interpublic, led by Chairman-CEO John J. Dooner Jr., decided to withdraw from the $160 million U.S. creative review with input from FCB executives including Brendan Ryan, FCB Worldwide CEO, and Leo-Arthur Kelmenson, FCB Worldwide chairman. Mr. Ryan is said to have favored continuing in Hyundai while Mr. Kelmenson, who worked closely on ex-client Chrysler, is said to have advocated that FCB focus on broader opportunities at GM.

Interpublic has had conversations with GM to assure the client of its loyalty and interest in the wake of the Publicis-Bcom3 announcement, an Interpublic agency insider said.

Messrs. Dooner and Ryan declined to comment. Mr. Kelmenson couldn't be reached. Mr. Dooner's spokesman declined to comment except to say there have been no meetings between Interpublic and GM related to Publicis.

GM will go from Bcom3's largest U.S. car client to one parked in Publicis-Bcom3's garage of car accounts. Toyota is Publicis' biggest car client globally. Publicis' Renault account is said to be less of a concern to GM, which owns part of rival Fiat. Publicis & Hal Riney, San Francisco, and Publicis West, Seattle, are two of the three remaining Hyundai finalists. Riney until recently handled GM's Saturn Corp.


On March 7, when Bcom3's sale to Publicis was announced, Bcom3 Chairman-CEO Roger Haupt said major clients including GM gave the green light to the deal. But GM has been remarkably mute; a GM spokeswoman said the day after the deal was made public the automaker was still getting more information and wasn't in a position to comment.

Since then, GM has been trying to figure out how the merger will affect its business, the spokeswoman said last week. C.J. Fraleigh, GM's executive director-corporate advertising and marketing, is having "lots of meetings and looking at lots of ideas" with Bcom3's D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, Troy, Mich., and Bcom3's GM Planworks, Detroit, she said. "We've had a long and strong business relationship with [D'Arcy and Bcom3] and we are working this thing through," she added.

A call to Mr. Haupt was returned by a Bcom3 spokesman, who said: "We are as committed as ever to GM." Publicis Chairman Maurice Levy declined to comment, though Mr. Levy has said GM has no conflict issue with Publicis.

Bcom3's GM ties go back to the early 20th century. D'Arcy handles GM's Cadillac and Pontiac accounts. GM Planworks was formed as a dedicated GM planning agency in late 2000 after a shootout with Interpublic.

Interpublic is eyeing Planworks and Pontiac as its best prospects to poach, according to one individual. If planning moved, it conceivably could be paired with Interpublic's GM Mediaworks, Warren, Mich., formed in 1994 as GM's dedicated media buyer.

Patrick Sherwood, president of D'Arcy North America, based in Troy, declined to comment. Dennis Donlin, president of GM Planworks, stressed his agency received "exceptionally strong" grades in its recent annual GM report card. GM is "very happy with the work we're doing," he said.

coveting cars

FCB has coveted a car account since losing its Chrysler Group business in late 2000. FCB reopened its Detroit-area office early this year with one executive (AA, Jan. 14) and was said to be targeting GM.

Interpublic's moves suggest Mr. Dooner learned a valuable lesson after his 2001 purchase of True North Communications. Omnicom Group, which shared PepsiCo as a client with True North's FCB, snared more than $350 million in PepsiCo billings after the client became uncomfortable residing under the same holding company as Coca-Cola Co., a key Interpublic client.

Before losing PepsiCo, Mr. Dooner contended the conflicts were manageable. But marketers, not agencies, define conflict-and Mr. Dooner appears to be taking a more proactive move should GM see a conflict at Publicis-Bcom3.

To be sure, Interpublic has more than one carmaker in its stable: Its shops handle Volkswagen of America's Audi; Mitsubishi Motor Sales USA; and Subaru of America (20% owned by GM). Early in the Hyundai review, four Interpublic shops pitched that business.

But Interpublic's main car client is GM. In the U.S., it has the bulk of GM's business. "Nobody knows GM like John Dooner," said one Interpublic agency executive.

Even if GM business were to shake loose, it wouldn't necessarily go to Interpublic despite the superagency's new efforts. GM has gone outside in its most recent reviews. Saturn tapped Omnicom Group's Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, earlier this year; Hummer went with independent Modernista!, Boston, in fall 2000.

contributing: kate macarthur, lisa sanders and laurel wentz

Fast Facts

Who drives what:


D'Arcy: GM's Cadillac, Pontiac

GM Planworks: Media planning

Leo Burnett: GM's Oldsmobile


Saatchi & Saatchi: Toyota

Team One: Toyota's Lexus

Fallon: BMW

Publicis West, Publicis & Hal Riney: Hyundai finalists

(Riney this year lost GM's Saturn)

Dentsu (investor in Publicis-Bcom3) Oasis: Toyota corporate

Colby & Partners: American Suzuki

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