McCann hits speed bumps with GM

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McCann-Erickson Worldwide is encountering speed bumps with General Motors Corp., its largest client worldwide and one that has been pouring additional spending into the agency in recent years.

GM, whose total spending at McCann tops $1 billion, may enlist creative help outside McCann to aid in its pan-European launch of Astra. McCann is also vying against several other agencies for the new China account for Buick, and the shop may be in hot water in the U.S. on the GMC account.

BILLINGS UP

Despite current GM glitches, McCann's billings from the carmaker have been rising fast. In the past five years, its worldwide billings on GM have grown from about $400 million to well over $1 billion. Among GM's assignments at McCann, the agency handles all of Latin America and Canada, and opened Eastern Europe for the carmaker.

GM of Europe, which is instituting GM's U.S. style of brand management, may use non-McCann creative for its first pan-European campaign--due next spring for the new Astra.

GM executives in Europe couldn't agree on a single campaign for Astra's launch after seeing different ideas from Lowe Group--which handles GM in Germany and the U.K.--and McCann, its sister Interpublic Group of Cos. shop. McCann handles GM in the rest of Europe.

GM will start hearing pitches from several, unidentified, non-GM shops later this month.

Executives close to GM said it's unlikely McCann and Lowe will lose the accounts, but they very well may have to run creative from another agency.

McCann may be caught in the middle in GM's European restructuring. GM's Opel subsidiary in Germany, Europe's largest market, is battling to retain its local autonomy with GM's European headquarters in Zurich.

In China, McCann is pitching the new Buick account against D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, another major GM agency; non-GM shop Bates Worldwide; and a couple of local agencies, believed to have been added at the request of GM's Chinese venture partner.

BRAND MANAGEMENT

GM's traditional policy has been to align brands by agency. McCann's Troy, Mich., office handles Buick's $191 million U.S. account, but an executive close to GM said the Chinese picked Buick as the nameplate they wanted, so GM's traditional policy wouldn't apply.

McCann's Troy office also han dles the $69 million GMC truck brand in the U.S., and this summer, executives close to GM said, GMC complained about the agency's handling of the account.

These executives added that McCann could lose the account, speculating that it might move to sister Interpublic shop Ammirati Puris Lintas, New York. Ammirati refused to comment.

A GM division can't just call a review without following a formal, decade-old process that includes executives from GM's North American Operations.

GM gave Ammirati assignments a year ago on GMC's Jimmy and Pontiac's Grand Am, and named it agency of record for its OnStar division.

The dynamics of the friction are tied to GMC's drive to become a premium truck brand, said an agency executive who previously worked on GMC regional dealer work. "GMC was always a shadow brand and all of a sudden, GMC is GM's darling--GM's Range Rover division."

Gunnar Wilmot, McCann's worldwide exec VP who has headed the Troy office since January, has sparked changes since late July to bolster the GMC account. He has hired several high-profile outsiders to fill key positions, including GMC account chief and executive media director, and hired or promoted a slew of others.

"The changes reflect the agency recognizing and rewarding its stars and adding quality impact players as needed," Mr. Wilmot said.

Both he and GMC said they don't discuss details of their business relationships. Other McCann officials would not comment on any potential difficulties with General Motors.

Other executives close to GM said it's unlikely McCann would lose GMC, adding that GMC is merely saber-rattling to scare McCann, especially since GM hasn't dumped an agency since 1958.

McCann's history with GMC in the U.S. has been stormy. In 1990, John Rock, then general manager of GMC, was dissatisfied with McCann and steered the agency to acquire the independent shop handling a slew of GMC regional dealer ad groups and form the McCann/SAS unit for the dealer work.

Later that year, in an unusual move, Candace Robbins, manager of truck advertising at GM's Chevrolet division, was "borrowed" to head the new SAS unit, though she was still on GM's payroll. Ms. Robbins has returned to GM. SAS lost most of its GMC dealer business earlier this year.

Contributing: Laurel Wentz, Dagmar Mussey.

Copyright October 1997, Crain Communications Inc.

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