In a 1988 reorganization, the promotion of George McCabe to a top marketing post was followed by the exit of Welton Mansfield, the longtime head of the FCB office responsible for Mazda.
"The status quo is no good anymore," Mr. McCabe said at the time. FCB changed. Mr. McCabe was then shipped off to a Mazda post in the Northeast.
But following a 1995 reorganization, Mr. McCabe is back in California as senior VP-general manager of Mazda Motor of America, charged with doing what it takes to fix a troubled organization. And Mr. Mansfield, a consultant in recent years, returned this month as exec VP-managing director of FCB's Santa Ana office, to rescue the estimated $175 million to $200 million account.
Last week Mazda denied the company is talking to consultants or agencies about a review.
"I know we haven't talked to other agencies," said Jay Amestoy, Mazda VP-corporate affairs and communications. Asked if Mazda was hiring a consultant, he said, "If we are, I'm not aware of it."
The FCB relationship, dating to Mazda's U.S. arrival in 1970, is the longest existing affiliation between an ad agency and import car marketer. But Mazda could jump if FCB doesn't act fast. Late last week, Mazda held an important meeting with FCB to review a monthlong creative presentation.
"In a way, Mazda [as a company] is under review right now," said Mr. McCabe. "It makes sense that the agency should be under scrutiny to deliver what we need."
He added: "At this point in time, there's nothing that would suggest to me that they won't deliver. But that remains to be seen."
Seen when? He wants FCB's big ideas for Mazda by, well, about Labor Day.
Mr. McCabe said Mazda still will devote most of its marketing money to individual models. But he said that must incorporate an overriding brand message, which is lacking in the soon-to-be-scrapped "It just feels right" ads.
Sentiment is growing among dealers that Mazda should change agencies, said John Campbell, Mazda dealer council chairman.
"Mazda needs a bold, decisive campaign which starts to build a brand and image," said Mr. Campbell, a dealer from Costa Mesa, Calif. "If they can do that with Foote, Cone & Belding, great. If they can't, then they should look elsewhere."
The strong-willed Mr. Mansfield overnight is trying to reinvent FCB. He will give the office a new name, has rehired a creative team that worked on Mazda in the '80s, and is proposing compensation tied to sales performance.
"They have a new agency," proclaimed Mr. Mansfield. Or an old agency: Mr. Mansfield said he's resurrecting the approach that worked for him and Mazda from 1978-88.
At first, it's not clear there's a big problem at Mazda. True, year-to-date U.S. sales are down 17.6% in an industry down only 2.3% after Mazda's seven consecutive years of record car sales.
The sales, though, are boosted by costly promotions: In a June cash incentives index from Autofacts, a West Chester, Pa., research company, Mazda ranked fourth-behind only Cadillac, Lincoln and Jaguar.
A good ad strategy could help fix that.
But Mazda has bigger troubles than advertising. "Their problem is not their ad agency. Their problem is strategic weaknesses," said Jesse Snyder, president of Snyder Research, a Moorpark, Calif., automotive consultancy.
Mr. Snyder notes Mazda's U.S. arm is far more reliant on Japanese production than are Toyota, Nissan and Honda, putting the No. 4 Japanese marque at a severe cost disadvantage because of the strong yen.
Mazda is best known for some of its smallest sellers-the cute Miata convertible and racy RX-7 sports car-while many consumers don't even recall its mainstay sedans, 626 and Protege, Mr. Snyder said.
The marque is spreading itself thin with 10 models. That's below last year's 12, however, and Mr. McCabe said he'd like to pare it down "a little more."
Mazda in the U.S. is hurt by turmoil at its financially ailing parent. Ford Motor Co., the 24.5% owner of Mazda Motor Corp., is effectively managing the Japanese company, meaning Mazda's U.S. needs take a backseat to Ford's agenda, Mr. Snyder said.
There have been rumors in recent years that Mazda might exit the U.S., but Mr. McCabe insists the brand is here to stay.
If Mazda is going to leave FCB, now is the time. Barring some instant cure, Mr. McCabe is resigned to entering the '96 model year this fall with a carryover campaign. Mazda may not begin its major new campaign till a new minivan is introduced early next year, meaning Mazda has time to move if FCB doesn't produce.
Should Mazda move, some close agency watchers speculate the company could end up at one of Ford's agencies, such as Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide or Wells Rich Greene BDDP.
Another logical candidate is Lord, Dentsu & Partners, which Mazda picked for a luxury division before scrapping the plan. New York-based Deutsch has just opened a Los Angeles office and is poised to go after any car account that moves.
Mr. Mansfield said FCB is focusing on the work, betting Mazda's future is tied to its past. "I have a feeling that as the Mazda management people, and as the dealer organization, get a sense of the return to the kind of focus and performance that was delivered in the late '70s through the late '80s, we'll gain a lot of confidence," he said.
Mr. McCabe is waiting to see results. "We'll be more influenced by what [FCB] delivers," he said. "You're only as good as your last campaign."
Contributing to this story: Alice Z. Cuneo, Mark Gleason, Raymond Serafin and Pat Sloan.
Headquarters: Irvine, Calif.
Leadership: Yoji "George" Toyama, president; George McCabe, senior VP-general manager.
Sales: 375,416 cars and light trucks (2.5% of U.S. market) in 1994, out of
1 million vehicles sold globally (2.1% of world market) by Mazda Motor Corp.
Ad spending: Estimated $175 million to $200 million in 1994.
Agency: Foote, Cone & Belding, Santa Ana, Calif.
Recent successes: Marked seventh consecutive year of record U.S. car sales
in '94. Achieving record sales in '95 of 626 sedan, critical as Mazda's main U.S.-built vehicle.
Challenges: Chart an ad strategy; get sales moving; reduce number of car models and find a sport-utility; cope with high yen.
Source: Advertising Age and company reports