Temerlin to defend: Subaru revs up agencies with $150 mil review

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Subaru of America's search for a fresh marketing approach has opened up a rare and coveted opportunity for agencies: a crack at a plum, $150 million automotive account.

A spokeswoman for Subaru, which saw U.S. sales rise 4% last year but posted a North American operating loss of $28 million due to incentives, called the search "a strategic move" as the automaker aspires to become "a global player as a premium brand." She said Temerlin McClain, Dallas, the incumbent creative and media planning agency, will be included in the process.

Subaru is "looking at our business in every aspect...we are evaluating what the marketplace has to offer," she said, indicating a media agency move may be considered. Sibling Universal McCann, New York, handles buying but referred calls to the client. The spokeswoman said an unnamed consultant will be tapped to handle the search.

Since sexy automotive accounts are considered an agency cornerstone but are few and far between, agencies are salivating over Subaru. Interpublic is expected to strongly defend the business and could offer up another of its shops to handle it. Likely Interpublic contenders would be Martin Agency, Richmond, Va., which has experience on Mercedes-Benz dealer work and Saab, and Hill Holiday Connors Cosmopulos, which had Infiniti.

Another possible bidder for the account, based on its upscale auto experience, is Omnicom Group's GSD&M, Austin, Texas, which lost Ford Motor Co.'s Land Rover North America account without a review in 2002. Another hot prospect could be Omnicom's DDB, New York, whose chief creative officer, Lee Garfinkel, spent 10 years on Subaru at Levine, Huntley, Vick & Beaver, New York, before working on Mercedes-Benz at Ammirati and on GMC at Lowe, New York.

Dentsu, which handles Subaru in Japan and was a finalist in Subaru's 1991 U.S. pitch, is likely to be invited. Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, is also open for a car account since General Motors Corp. rolled its last Oldsmobile off the assembly line last week. Burnett is owned by Publicis Groupe, in which Dentsu holds a stake.

`success story'

"We haven't been contacted," said a spokesman at GSD&M, declining to make further comment. The same response came from Hill Holiday and Martin Agency. DDB declined to comment and Dentsu did not return calls by press time.

"Subaru is a great brand with great people and great product, and with the new cars to soon be launched, will certainly reach even higher levels of success," said David Lyon, president of Temerlin, in a statement. "We intend to be a part of that success story."

An agency consultant who hadn't been contacted by Subaru suggested the automaker would bypass the mega shops. "Given the existing relationships between the larger global automakers and the holding company agency brands, it's more likely than not that Subaru is going to be looking at either an independent or mid-size brand within a holding company network."

The latest Subaru work from Temerlin McClain, with Tour de France cycling champ Lance Armstrong, arrives in May. But consumers don't clearly link the bike champion to Subaru, executives close to the marketer said, because he appears in ads for several other brands. The Subaru spokeswoman said the carmaker plans to continue its relationship with Mr. Armstrong. It's believed, however, he will have a smaller role in advertising going forward.

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