Suzuki fires Asher, hires Colby Effler as auto shop

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American Suzuki Motor Corp. is expected to move its $33 million car account this week to Colby Effler & Partners, Santa Monica, Calif., without a review.

The move is a blow to Asher & Partners, Los Angeles, which won the business a decade ago.

Colby, wholly owned by Japan's Dentsu, already handles Suzuki's $5 million U.S. motor-cycle account. Dentsu handles Suzuki in Japan.

WISH FULFILLED

The win also provides a U.S. car account long coveted by Dentsu, which in March took a 20% stake in Bcom3 Group -- the parent of Leo Group and MacManus Group. Dentsu's seven U.S. shops, including Colby, are to be folded under the Bcom3 umbrella.

Suzuki's agency change is related to the appointment of new top ad executives at the automaker rather than dissatisfaction with Asher, an executive close to the situation said. The executive said Suzuki has demanded silence on the issue from all parties.

Lore McKenna stepped down as Suzuki's national ad manager two months ago. The carmaker split the position into two new ones. Kam Smith-Arnold was named director of corporate brand communications while Kerry Graeber was named associate director of brand marketing and advertising. Mr. Graeber worked closely with Colby when he was an ad manager on the motorcycle account and is said to have encouraged the switch.

Mr. Graeber was attending a Suzuki-sponsored event in San Diego last week and could not be reached for comment.

MARKETING CHANGES

Ms. Smith-Arnold confirmed through a spokeswoman that there will be marketing changes, but declined to reveal further details. Suzuki may make an announcement as soon as midweek, the spokeswoman said.

Hal Asher, chairman of the incumbent agency, insisted that all is well on the account.

"At this point everything seems to be fine," he said on the morning of June 2. "We're going to the client today to get approval on a whole bunch of new commercials." He declined further comment.

Colby also declined comment.

The Suzuki shift marks another setback for Asher, which is defending its $25 million account for the California Department of Health Services' Anti-Tobacco Initiative. Asher's best-known work has been for Health Services, putting an anti-smoking twist on the Marlboro cowboy. Other clients of Asher, which reports billings of $125 million, include the California Children & Families Commission and a number of dot-com companies, including PayMyBills.com and WireBreak Entertainment.

SALES ON THE RISE

The change comes as Suzuki sales are on the rise, due primarily to the success of the Grand Vitara sport-utility vehicle. Suzuki sold 35,278 units in 1999, according to Automotive News. The Grand Vitara accounted for 78% of total units. Total sales for the first four months of 2000 were 19,906 units, 43% ahead of the year-earlier period.

Asher created splashy commercials for the fall 1998 launch of the SUV, marking Suzuki's return to network TV after 11 years.

Fred Savage, a Suzuki dealer in Reading, Pa., was surprised to hear the brand was set to change ad agencies. He said dealers are pleased with Asher's work, adding, "It's kind of hard to fire someone when sales are up."

General Motors Corp. tripled its investment in Suzuki's Japanese parent nearly two years ago to 10%. GM and Suzuki operate a joint venture plant in Ingersoll, Ontario, where Grand Vitara and GM's Chevrolet's Tracker are made.

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