Y&R: Managing Ford's luxury lines

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In three weeks it will be 24 years since Ford put Young & Rubicam back into the car business, and Y&R has been riding in style even since, mostly in Lincolns and Mercurys, and more recently in Jaguars and Land Rovers.

"We've been very happy to be their partner in this enterprise over nearly a quarter of a century," says Michael Dolan, chairman-CEO of the Y&R Group and Y&R Advertising.

Current Chairman William Clay Ford had just begun working at Ford as a product analyst when the Ford-Y&R relationship got under way in April 1979. Mr. Ford's roots in the car business need no explanation. But Y&R's auto heritage also was impressive, going back 71 years to 1932, when the agency won the Packard account and inherited its famous slogan, "Ask the man who owns one" (created in 1902 by J.W. Packard).

Packard was one of the great luxury nameplates of American auto history, and Y&R saw it through to the end in 1956 when it ceased production. But the agency soon won another luxury car, Lincoln. Y&R's first encounter with Ford, however, was a brief one, cut short by one of Detroit's periodic episodes of agency musical chairs.

It went like this: The Arthur Kudner Agency lost Buick early in 1958; Buick quickly moved to McCann-Erickson; McCann resigned Chrysler to take Buick; Chrysler moved to Y&R; and Y&R resigned Lincoln to take Chrysler.

The Y&R-Chrysler relationship lasted 21 years, only to be undone in Lee Iacocca. As the new president of Chrysler in 1979, he fired Y&R and consolidated the Chrysler account at Kenyon & Eckhardt, which unceremoniously dumped Lincoln-Mercury after 34 years, leaving Mr. Iacocca's nemesis, Henry Ford II, momentarily deprived of an agency. This set off one of the most intensely watched Madison Avenue scrambles of the period, as Y&R made its mighty effort to capture the Lincoln-Mercury business.

The push began the moment Y&R learned it had lost Chrysler and turned into a 50-day siege for the people of the business development group, which included future Y&R CEOs Alex Kroll and Peter Georgescu. The battle cry was: "If you don't come in Saturday, don't bother to come in Sunday."

When Y&R won the Ford business on April 19, 1979, Advertising Age headlined the story, "Young & Rubicam did its homework."

More recently Y&R added two other prestige Ford marques to its roster, Jaguar and Land Rover. Each is handled by a separate Y&R team and is treated essentially as a separate account, despite the overlap of prestige.

"We may be unique," Mr. Dolan explained recently. "Ford is what we call here a 'Key Corporate Account' or KCA. That means we service it in a special way that cuts horizontally across our range of capabilities, which include Y&R Advertising, Wunderman, Burson-Marsteller, Landor and so on. As you might guess, one of the most key of our KCAs is Ford."

David Murray is president of Y&R's Irvine, Calif., office and oversees all of the agency's Ford U.S. operations both in Irvine and in Dearborn, Mich. This summer, much of the Irvine operation will move to Dearborn, where the Lincoln-Mercury Division also will be moving. But Jaguar and Land Rover will remain in Irvine. This means Y&R will have two full-service offices ("fully integrated and media-neutral," Mr. Murray stresses) servicing the Ford business, both providing the full services of other Y&R components.

The Ford business deserves all the attention it gets. Y&R has not picked the easiest of times to represent a luxury U.S. division like Lincoln-Mercury, not to mention British aristocrats such as Jaguar and Land Rover. It's not that times are bad; it's quite the opposite, actually. When the agency won Lincoln-Mercury 24 years ago, Lincoln's main competition was more or less what it had been for 50 relatively tranquil and predictable years-Cadillac, with a little Mercedes on the side perhaps.

Today there is nothing tranquil about the luxury car field, whose high profit quotients have made it an arena in which every company moves to compete. So Lincoln now faces an array of competition unprecedented in Ford history, not only from Lexus, Infinity and other foreign brands, but intramural competition as well from Jaguar and Land Rover.

"It's become the sweet spot of the marketplace," says Mr. Dolan. "But the nice thing is it's a spot that Lincoln has had in its DNA since the beginning. They feel confident they have at least as much right to that space as anyone. "

Lincoln's future may be clearer than that of Mercury, which has had much success with the Mountaineer, especially in attracting women into the SUV market. But in other ways the old "Sign of the cat" seems to have lost some of its growl.

"The focus over the last couple of years has really been to take advantage of Lincoln first," Mr. Dolan concedes, "get it set, get it on course, and take advantage of the incredible position of that brand. The idea is get the product development right behind Lincoln, and then focus on how Mercury complements and supports that brand."

One may infer, perhaps, that Ford has concerns about Mercury. The big win with Mercury Mountaineer may have been something of a phenomenon. But beyond that, the make's place within the Ford lineup needs clarification lest it suffer the fate of Plymouth and Oldsmobile.

"This is similar to Frito-Lay," Mr. Dolan notes. "Everyone looks at what your brand lineup is. Where do you put your dollars to get the biggest bang? Which is the brand you're really going to march behind? And how do you array the other brands beneath it? Every company is always looking at these issues.

"I think Ford has by no means passed on Mercury. In fact, their feeling is that as recently as the last big meeting we had with the dealers, they were very, very firm in their support for Mercury [and] how it supports and complements Lincoln."

Right now it's certainly Lincoln that is getting the full treatment from Ford and Y&R, starting with its partnering with the U.S. Open tennis tournament.

"It's not simply advertising," Mr. Dolan stresses. "It's really a total marketing approach to the brand built around an occasion that is the perfect embodiment of Lincoln-the U.S. Open. It's a Lincoln event, pure and simple. We started four years ago, and it's really built as we've worked to take full advantage of it. The week of the event, for example, we had these beautifully polished black Navigators cruising Manhattan with a little logo saying 'Official car of U.S. Open.'

"This is what I mean by total marketing. You see the message on the Internet, signage, wallboards on special tents that have been set up. You can't get away from it. It's the marketing equivalent of surround sound."

Clearly the public appetite for expensive luxury cars has outlived the prosperity of the '90s that did so much to enlarge that market and beckon fresh competition. Neither high gasoline prices nor an economic slowdown has brought back the miles-per-gallon wars advertisers were waging in the '70s, and for SUV buyers fuel economy seems a matter of complete indifference.

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