An agency's parking lot says much about what client is in driver's seat

Some shops maintain an office vehicle perfect for a weekend jaunt

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When butler, shine, Stern & Partners pitched the Mini USA account in 2005, the Sausalito, Calif., shop visited lots of Mini dealerships and talked to many owners and Mini clubs. A few staffers already owned Minis.

Now, a little more than a year after winning the account, CEO Greg Stern said 10 employees own Minis. While Mr. Stern admitted to owning an Audi station wagon and a classic Mercedes-Benz, he sounded genuinely thrilled to report, "I have the most fun driving the Mini" he also now owns.

The agency doesn't offer employees any inducements to buy the premium small car. "The incentive is it's a great car to drive; it's a lot of fun, and we represent that brand," he said.

Ad agencies lust after car accounts because of the advertisers' often robust budgets and the panache they bring to a client roster. Shops pull out the stops pitching them.

During Mazda's 1997 review, Doner, Southfield, Mich., rented every model the Ford Motor Co. affiliate made for 30 days to get to know the brand, said CEO Alan Kalter.

After the win, Doner encouraged staffers to buy Mazda vehicles in part because of a discount from the automaker, he said. Mr. Kalter owns two Mazdas, a Miata sports car and a B4000 pickup.

Richards Group's parking garage is packed with Hyundais, said Dale Hruby, principal of the Dallas shop. "I've happily driven a Hyundai for the nearly five years we've had the business," he said. His current model is a Tucson, the same as agency founder Stan Richards, though Mr. Richards' wife, Betty, has a Bentley Continental GT she won in a raffle.

Mr. Hruby said his family has always had Fords since his brother-in-law has always worked there; his wife still drives a Ford Expedition.

Hyundai offers agency personnel the same one-year-lease program open to Hyundai workers or employee pricing if they'd rather buy. "We drive Hyundais because it's the right thing to do, and they're damned good cars," Mr. Hruby said.

Hyundai Motor America Chief Operating Officer Steve Wilhite said the automaker treats Richards as a preferred vendor, so the agency's employees get better deals when they buy new Hyundais. He said he wouldn't mandate that Richards staffers buy Hyundais. "I want to earn their business."


Still, Mr. Wilhite also wants to be sure Richards' staffers on the account have access to Hyundai products, so the advertiser makes vehicles available to them to drive free for an undisclosed amount of time before a model's launch.

Jeff Goodby, co-chairman of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, had already owned an Isuzu SUV before his San Francisco agency won the account in 1991.

When Porsche was a client, Mr. Goodby said he briefly owned a Boxster in the late 1990s-reluctantly, he noted, because it didn't fit his laid-back style. The Porsche and Isuzu accounts are gone, and so are the vehicles made by those automakers.

The agency won General Motors Corp.'s Saturn account in 2002, and now nearly all 18 people at the agency who work on the business own Saturns, Mr. Goodby said. The agency also owns a Vue crossover, which any agency staffer can sign out for a weekend.

Mr. Goodby doesn't own a Saturn-yet. He said he plans to buy a Saturn Sky roadster, but for now he's happy with another GM product, a red Chevrolet Silverado pickup, though his wife has a Lexus hybrid RX400h SUV. His partner, Rich Silverstein, who doesn't work on Saturn, just bought a new Porsche 911 GT3.

The agency doesn't offer any enticements to staffers to purchase Saturns. "We realize where our bread is buttered, so we tend to like and use our clients' products," he said.

Chevrolet's agency takes a different approach. Any officer, vice president or higher that works on the account at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Campbell-Ewald must have a Chevrolet in the household and present the vehicle registration to collect an annual bonus, according to an insider and an outside executive familiar with the agency.

A spokesman for the Warren, Mich., agency declined to confirm that, citing legal issues related to compensation. But he said the agency "broadly encourages our people to buy Chevrolets." Any senior VP or higher at the agency with a Chevrolet gets a reserved parking space. There are plenty of Chevrolets in the agency's lot, both in reserved and unreserved spots.

When Mike Vogel ran the suburban Detroit office of Bozell Worldwide (since folded into FCB) in the mid-1990s, he offered agency employees a paid week's vacation if they bought any new vehicle from client Chrysler Corp. More than 60% of the agency took advantage of the extra time off, he said.

While "Chrysler loved the idea," the leadership in Bozell's New York office "had a meltdown over it but finally acquiesced," said Mr. Vogel, who's now a partner in consultancy RTV Communications.

He estimated Bozell staffers bought as many as 700 Chrysler products a year. "You need to support your clients; otherwise you're just hired guns."

David Angelo, chairman of David & Goliath, estimated that half his agency's staff own Kia vehicles. It's an account the El Segunda, Calif., shop won without a review in late 1999 and defended in a 2004 review. He drives his Kia Amanti and Sorento but said his wife drives a five-year-old Toyota Sequoia SUV.


"We don't put any strict mandates on our people" at the agency to buy a Kia, he said. The independent shop's policy is to recommend they drive a Kia and also check out the competition. "We are a challenger brand, and it behooves us to know what other vehicles are like."

Similarly, Rob Schwartz, executive creative director of TBWA/ Chiat/Day, Playa del Rey, Calif., estimated about 40% of all agency staff, whether they work on the Nissan or Infiniti accounts, bought new vehicles from the automaker in 2006.

"We embrace the brand," Mr. Schwartz said.

John Colasanti took mass transit to work but recalled shocking his "bus buddies" when driving by them in a Porsche Boxster, leased to help Carmichael Lynch successfully pitch the brand's account in 1998. The president of the Minneapolis agency said six staffers own or lease Porsches.

The agency owns a Boxster, which Mr. Colasanti said he gives out monthly to the team or employee with the best idea. The shop also owns two motorcycles from Harley-Davidson, another client, and any employee with a cycle license can drive them.

Doner's Tim Blett, president of the agency's auto practice in Irvine, Calif., not only owns a Mazda RX8 and two Tribute SUVs, he's also a successful Mazda salesman, having persuaded his mother, stepdad and brother to buy Mazdas.
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