Pontiac, Buick flunk GM ad test

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General Motors Corp. doesn't like its own ads.

In a recent evaluation of each other's work, advertising managers from each of the automaker's vehicle brands gave Pontiac's and Buick's ads a brutal three, or lower, out of a possible 10, according to an executive close to the automaker.

The low rating, coming as GM is under the gun to increase sales in the face of a nearly $1 billion first-quarter loss, signals to some the marketer is ready to make some hard decisions on its agencies, particularly Publicis Groupe's Chemistri, Troy, Mich., which handles Pontiac. While GM has historically maintained long-term relationships with its shops, the auto giant dropped a bomb last month by putting its $3 billion-plus national and regional media buying account up for review.

Figuring creative may not be far behind, agencies are lining up for a shot. Although the Buick work was low-rated, its agency, Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann Erickson, Birmingham, Mich., seems secure on the $120 million account. Pontiac is another story. Interpublic Group of Cos.' Deutsch, Los Angeles, coveting a car account to replace Mitsubishi, has been trying to get its foot in the door on the $156 million Pontiac business, and is said to have made a pitch two weeks ago for the brand.

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Mark-Hans Richer, marketing director of Pontiac, which has experienced sliding vehicle sales this year and has changed ad directions several times in recent years, denied that report. Mike Sheldon, managing partner of Deutsch, Los Angeles, didn't return calls for comment. A Deutsch spokeswoman said, "We've had numerous conversations and flirtations within the auto industry, but I don't know specifically about GM or Pontiac."

Mark LaNeve, who moved last month to VP-sales, service and marketing in North America from VP-corporate marketing and advertising, hinted the automaker was taking a tougher line on agencies at the New York auto show last month when he told Advertising Age, "We have asked all our agencies to really step up to the plate." When Mr. LaNeve returned to GM in 2001 as general marketing manager of Cadillac after six years at Volvo, he re-evaluated Chemistri's Cadillac reel for the period. Mr. LaNeve wasn't available for comment last week, but in the earlier interview said, "We have to reignite Pontiac the way we did Cadillac."

Another sign of dissatisfaction: Pontiac has started running a TV spot for the G6 sedan not from Chemistri but from Interpublic's McCann Erickson, Toronto, which handles GM brands in Canada and created the spot for the Canadian client. A spokeswoman confirmed that, adding that GM is now trying increasingly to share work globally.

Interpublic and Publicis and their agencies have battled for GM business for years. The media review pits dedicated Interpublic's General Motors MediaWorks, Warren, Mich., and New York, against Publicis' Starcom Mediavest, whose sibling, dedicated General Motors Planworks, Detroit, handles planning and research. Presentations are this month.

GM's accounts have been a headache for Tom Bernardin since he joined Publicis' Leo Burnett USA as CEO a year ago. Chemistri President-CEO Patrick Sherwood and top creative Gary Topolewski left within months of Mr. Bernardin's arrival. Chemistri started working closer with Burnett and Mr. Bernardin bolstered the agencies' GM team with several high-profile hires. Chemistri executives were not available for comment, but a Burnett spokeswoman said, "We've worked very hard to constantly improve the quality of work on both Cadillac and Pontiac and have put new teams, management and creative, against the assignments."

GM's last major review was for Saturn in 2001. But word of trouble between Cadillac or Pontiac and Chemistri and its predecessor, D'Arcy, Masius, Benton & Bowles, has surfaced every few years since at least 1994. Proof of the tension can be linked to Cadillac tapping then-roster shop Berlin Cameron to create an Escapade spot for the 1998 Super Bowl and Pontiac tapping non-roster shop Ammirati Puris Lintas for a short-term Grand Am assignment in 1996.

Things are different now. GM has new management for North America, including Mr. LaNeve, and its fuse is shortening: Last week GM announced its total U.S. vehicle sales in the first quarter slipped by 5% to 1.002 million units vs. a year ago.

contributing: james b. arndorfer and alice z. cuneo

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