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Team Detroit Is No. 10 on the Ad Age Agency A-List

'Pure Creative Horsepower' and Departure From Typical Auto Ads Have Made This Agency a Beacon in Its Home City's Gloomy Ad Market

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CHICAGO ( -- There is no lack of agency models in adland, but few attract more criticism than the kind that are built to service a single client. For good reason too -- most don't work.

But if you ask George Rogers, president-CEO of the WPP-owned agency, he'll say the reason Team Detroit -- formed in late 2006 by melding five WPP shops that worked with Ford -- is successful is because it enjoys an ultra-close relationship with its biggest client while still managing not to alienate others. "For many prospects, Ford ... has proven only to be a strength," he said. "Its profound desire for Team Detroit to experiment and constantly innovate makes Ford a brilliant anchor client."

Considering Team Detroit's growing portfolio of non-auto clients, it's not hard to buy that theory. The shop reported a 50% hike in revenue in the past two years and in September 2010 recorded its largest non-automotive win to date, Sports Authority, on the heels of utility clothier Carhartt earlier in 2010.

Team Detroit also had a strong hand in the Mazda win, which WPP scored in June. (Ford owns a minority stake in Mazda, and the two often share manufacturing facilities.) Taking a cue from Ford, Mazda created its own dedicated team under WPP, headquartered in Southern California and helmed by former JWT New York Chief Creative Officer Harvey Marco.

In many ways, the agency has been a beacon in the otherwise gloomy Detroit ad market, which in its heyday controlled billions in ad dollars that all but floated away in the recession when two of the three automakers filed for bankruptcy, and, in the wake, shifted their ad accounts to new agencies.

"Not only did we endure, we prevailed," said Toby Barlow, exec VP and chief creative officer at Team Detroit. "We are a positive story in a region that hasn't really seen that many."

Team Detroit ended 2010 with nearly 1,250 employees -- most of them in the Dearborn, Mich., headquarters, with the rest sprinkled throughout 23 U.S. services offices for Ford. Headcount was up about 8% in 2010, and revenue was up 11% from 2009; WPP is hiring 120 Irvine, Calif.-based employees for Team Mazda. Mr. Rogers attributes those lifts to new accounts as well as more work from existing clients Ford, Scotts, Johnson Controls and Warrior Sports. The agency also had no account losses during the year.

See work from Team Detroit on Creativity.

Ford itself was a bright spot in a recession that crippled carmakers, and, unlike its Detroit brethren General Motors Co. and Chrysler, Ford turned down a government bailout. To further differentiate itself and bond with its customers, Team Detroit radically departed from the typical car-advertising format with a new brand campaign for Ford called Drive One. Mr. Barlow explains the thinking behind it: "General Motors had a campaign that said GM was the voice of god, that it was the best. We wanted to go 180 degrees away from that and put together work that was focused on the idea that Ford was a great car driven by everyday people."

Team Detroit last year also helped market the new Ford Fiesta and revamp Ford's truck advertising. For the Fiesta -- a subcompact car that hadn't been available in the U.S. since 1980 -- Team Detroit executed a massive prelaunch nearly a year before the car was available in the U.S. Ford gave 100 Fiestas to people the automaker calls "influencers" and asked them to use various social media and digital platforms to generate buzz around the Fiesta.

The tactic worked. Ford's retail sales are up 20% from 2009 and Fiesta "is meeting and exceeding all sales targets and is also changing people's perception of the Ford brand," said Matt VanDyke, director-marketing communications for the U.S. at Ford. He added that Ford is historically known for trucks and Mustangs -- not small cars. "Team Detroit has enabled us to bust into [the subcompact] segment," he said.

Team Detroit's work for Sports Authority launched around Black Friday, and Simon MacGibbon, senior VP-marketing at Sports Authority, said it was the retailer's biggest Black Friday in history.

Sports Authority is undergoing a massive, multiyear brand reimaging, advertising more than ever. To execute such a reimaging, Mr. MacGibbon said it needed a big agency. The pitch process started with about 50 agencies, which were whittled down to 25, and eventually five. "Team Detroit was heads and shoulders above everyone else," said Mr. MacGibbon. "Their passion distinguishes them. Their work is groundbreaking for our industry, which tends to be homogeneous. They're pure creative horsepower."

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