Did Irreverence Play a Part in Departure of Top Kia Execs?

Carmaker's New U.S. Chief Not Pleased by Humor in Latest Ads

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DETROIT (AdAge.com) -- Look for a change in creative direction from Kia Motors America following the departure of two top executives, Ian Beavis and Len Hunt.

Executives close to the matter said Byung Mo Ahn, who returned to Kia's Irvine, Calif., headquarters Feb. 4 in the newly created position of chairman and group CEO of Kia Motors America and Kia Motors Manufacturing Georgia (the automotive plant currently under construction in West Point, Ga.), doesn't like the current brand of humor in Kia's ads, according to executives close to the matter. One of those executives said Mr. Ahn prefers to show the cars and trucks as serious contenders with good quality.

The departures of Mr. Hunt, Kia's president, and Mr. Beavis, VP-marketing overseeing advertising, product planning and public relations, followed closely after the arrival of Mr. Ahn, who could not be reached for comment. A Kia spokesman would only saw the two men "left the company" and declined to comment further. Messrs. Hunt and Beavis could not be reached for comment.

The leave-takings came less than a week after Mr. Beavis unveiled the automaker's "Unheard of President's Day Sale" campaign that honors, in tongue-in-cheek fashion, 13th President Milliard Fillmore for being the first president to have running water in the White House. The punchline of new TV ads promoting the sale is a soap-on-a-rope bust of President Fillmore; the automaker handed out the same soaps to reporters at its media dinner last week during the Chicago Auto Show.

David and Goliath, Los Angeles, which successfully defended Kia's account in 2004, is viewed as safe on the account; the agency worked with Mr. Ahn during his first three-year tour of duty in Irvine in 1999, according to the executives. The agency did not return calls.

A staple of Kia's marketing
Humor and irreverence has been a staple of Kia's advertising since it hit U.S. shores in 1994. An early TV commercial showed college students zipping around a field in a Sportage writing "Bite Me" in deep grass with the wheels of the SUV. (Goldberg Moser O'Neill, San Francisco, was the agency for that campaign.)

Last week at the Chicago Auto Show, Mr. Beavis didn't give any indications that his job might be in jeopardy. "We got off to a good start in ads and marketing in 2008," he told Advertising Age in an interview at the show. He was pleased with Kia's sales in January, traditionally the industry's slowest sales month.

Kia reported U.S. January sales of 21,365 vehicles, a 5.2% drop from January 2007, but it was still nipping at the heels of older Hyundai Motor America, which saw sales drop by 22% to 21,452 units.

Mr. Beavis was also enthusiastic about the improvements he was making to improve how the carmaker generates leads and closes deals with consumers, with investments to train dealers how to respond to online prospects.

He showed Advertising Age a slew of new national and regional TV ads that were all due to roll out by the end of the month. Two spots for kiamatch.com each contain a racy line with sexual innuendos. "This love affair is bound to go all the way," the narrator says in the spot called "Picnic."

Kia dealers were upset by the departure of the two executives. Michael Crawford, a major dealer in Arizona, said if another carmaker hired Len Hunt, he would sign up for that franchise. "That's how much I believe in him." Another dealer, upset over the turnover of non-Korean executives, said, "I am just so tired of the drama."

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EDITOR'S NOTE: This story overwrites an earlier version that attributed Kia's latest ad effort, featuring Millard Fillmore and a soap-on-a-rope punchline, as the main reason behind the departure of Ian Beavis and Len Hunt from the automaker. While we stand behind the sourcing of that earlier story, the facts do not support that earlier assumption.

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