Then a junior copywriter at Levine, Huntley, Schmidt & Beaver, Mr. Garfinkel created a dealer postcard picturing a Subaru vehicle and the line: "If the U.S. mail drove our four-wheel drive this postcard may have arrived sooner."
A lot has changed for both the brand and the man since those days. Mr. Garfinkel, now chairman-chief creative officer of the Omnicom Group agency, has become one of the industry's highest-profile creative minds, while Subaru has moved steadily upmarket. With the news last week that DDB had grabbed Subaru's advertising and media account, the two are reunited.
"Subaru of America executives were extremely keen on getting Lee Garfinkel back involved with the business even before the review began," said an agency executive familiar with the contest, adding it was actually Mr. Garfinkel's work on Mercedes-Benz that the attracted Subaru, which has high-end aspirations. "That desire may have even been the instigation for the review," the executive said.
The win was a major coup for the agency, which had been without a car account (prized in the industry as high-profile, big revenue generators) since it lost Volkswagen's domestic business back in 1994. (VW still works with DDB offices in other parts of the world.) It was also an important victory for Mr. Garfinkel, who is enjoying the most important new-business win since he joined DDB in late 2002 amid much fanfare and with the intent of raising the New York office's profile.
"The creative opportunities are enormous," Mr. Garfinkel said. "It's a much different category than in the 1980s. There's a lot of very good car advertising but not a lot of great advertising."
One consultant said that an account like Subaru, which spent $137 million in measured media last year, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR, can do a lot for the agency's creative reputation. "Automotive is a must-have account for a large, mainstream agency," said Arthur Anderson, a principal at Morgan Anderson Consulting. "Trouble is, there are more large agencies than there are car accounts."
In netting the account, DDB bested three other shops-Interpublic Group of Cos.' Martin Agency, Richmond, Va., and a pair of New York shops, WPP Group's Berlin Cameron/Red Cell and Interpublic's McCann Erickson-in a strange review that saw search consultant AAR Partners issue a list of finalists in July, only to have the marketer rescind it. The DDB appointment was said to be a particular blow to Berlin Cameron, which passed on pitching Kia Motors America to go after Subaru.
Mr. Garfinkel declined to discuss what creative approach the agency team will take with the automaker.
Subaru wants to build U.S. sales to 250,000 units annually by 2006. This year it launched the all-new 2005 Legacy and Outback and the marketer has high hopes for its largest vehicle yet, a still-unnamed seven-seat sports utility vehicle that arrives next year. Subaru said earlier this year it doesn't consider the move upscale, but rather one of "premium pricing." According to the marketer, the new SUV will cost between $30,000 and $37,000.
The prices of Subaru vehicles have climbed steadily for years, with loaded models already hovering around $30,000.
"It's a much more advanced company than it was when I worked on it," said Mr. Garfinkel. "They've got a lot more exciting product than they've ever had and that's a great opportunity for any agency."
contributing: jean halliday, lisa sanders