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Volvo CEO Almost Appears to Put Ad Biz in Review

Her Agency, Euro RSCG, Looks On as Anne Belec Seeks New Ideas

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SOUTHAMPTON, Bermuda (AdAge.com) -- Some gasped, some laughed and some started salivating as Anne Belec, president-CEO of Volvo Cars of North America, made a very public plea for new ideas to the audience at the American Association of Advertising Agencies Management Conference.
Anne Belec, president-CEO of Volvo, surprised the crowd of ad agency executives with her call for advertising ideas.

Speaking at the Fairmont Southampton resort, Ms. Belec concluded a gauzy look at Volvo's advertising over the years by bluntly, and surprisingly, asking a roomful of agency executives for their help in coming up with ways to evolve the automaker's "Volvo for Life" idea. It seemed for a minute that she was putting her business up for grabs in this most public of forums and right in front of Ron Berger, who is not only 4As chairman but also the CEO and chief creative officer of her agency, Havas' Euro-RSCG.

AOR CEO dismisses notion
Mr. Berger, who introduced Ms. Belec and thanked her after her speech, was quick to dismiss that notion: "Those of you who just think that account went into review, that's not what happened, just to be clear." And, speaking after her presentation, Ms. Belec also clarified that while she was definitely looking for alliances and partners in other areas, she was not looking for a replacement for her main agency.

Still, Ms. Belec, who just assumed the president-CEO post April 1, was the only marketer invited to speak to the audience of agency executives and caused quite a stir with her remarks.

One agency president said, "Lets not exaggerate this, she didn't put it into review, but she did kind of invite the audience to pitch her. It was incredibly disrespectful. Not just to Ron and his agency, but also to the audience in a way, because it suggests that ideas just come from anywhere and that someone else could easily weigh in on another agency's strategy, a long-running strategy."

Quick, gimmicky ideas
Certainly her plea for ideas from any quarter seemed somewhat ironic, given that earlier in her speech she had said she was not looking for some quick, gimmicky idea that might have fleeting success and then be gone, but a thought for the brand that inspires thinking and ideas that can be consistently associated with Volvo for many years.

Another large agency CEO said it did sound as if Ms. Belec was calling a review, but saw the remark as more of a humorous mistake. "I laughed. That was all you could do. I don't think she meant too much by it."

It wasn't the first time a senior marketer at an automaker had made such a plea; at Advertising Age's Adwatch: Outlook 2003, C.J. Fraleigh, then General Motors Corp.'s executive director of advertising and corporate marketing, held up a blank check and suggested that he would make it out to the agency that came to him with a killer idea. Mr. Fraleigh later said he was deluged by pitches in the weeks after the speech.

General broadside at agencies
Like Mr. Fraleigh's speech, which was really intended to take the agency world to task for having too few big ideas that sold products, Ms. Belec's remarks could also have been construed as a more general broadside at agencies. "What's the phrase that makes every agency cringe?" she said. "We need to look at compensation ... No. My niece is looking for a summer internship ... No. It's 'We're looking for a big idea.'"

Conversely, one agency executive at the conference remarked that Ms. Belec's plea for ideas was typical of the declining loyalty of marketers to their long-term agencies, and is ironic because she is one of a diminishing number of marketers still in a real agency-of-record-client relationship.

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