BMW dropping Fallon is just part of a Mad. Ave. tradition

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BMW goes into review? Huh?

This one caught us totally by surprise. Let's see ... Fallon creates more buzz for a superb brand than any luxury car in recent memory. Turbocharged by a raft of hot new models, BMW has raced from one record to another, leaving archrival Mercedes in its dust. Now, Ad Age tells us, the usual suspects are being summoned to New Jersey, including, in this case, Crispin Porter.

Is this what an ad agency gets for a decade of superb performance?

Understandably, Pat Fallon went ballistic.

Is there a villain here? Well, there is one new character in this tableau: Jack Pitney, the new CMO. He's anxious for Crispin to pitch. (Fallon sold 111,000-plus BMWs; Crispin sold 18,000-plus Minis.)

BMW History: Way back in the `60s, BMW was an off-brand import. BMW was a great car-with fuddy-duddy ads in the USA.

Then came the fabled Ammirati & Puris. Basically, two guys (whose portfolio from Ally-the under-honored ad genius-included great Fiat ads) beat out the Big Agencies. Then they wrote a glorious chapter in ad history, making BMW the aspirational car for a generation of boomers. But after a decade or so, they got axed. (BMW, however, held tight to its tagline, "The Ultimate Driving Machine.")

Getting fired after brilliant work is ho-hum news in adland. George Lois put Tommy Hilfiger on the map overnight with an innovative wall poster in Times Square. Then, when a real budget developed, Tommy canned him.

Apple stunned Jay Chiat by going into review after Jay had turned Apple into an icon brand. After BBDO picked up the account, Apple's then top marketing executive told Ad Age that while BBDO had been "responsive," it should show "still greater responsiveness and greater creativity." Exit BBDO.

When BMW stunned Ammirati, Mad. Ave. was shocked for about a nanosecond-then every agency in America tried to pitch the account. Mullen won it. And Mullen blew it. Fallon got BMW on the bounce and did glorious work. Its online mini-movies were downloaded 10 gazillion times. During their tenure, they proved their value.

So, what is going on here? Is it just part of BMW's DNA to fire brilliant agencies? Or is this merely symptomatic of the perpetual flitty-flighty life on Madison Avenue?

Fallon has survived big losses over the years, and it will survive this one. It survived losing Nancy Rice. Then Tall Tom himself. It survived losing U S West and walked away from the $40 million Prudential account.

But today, we're in the "New Economy." The Not-Quite-Recovered-Post-9/11 Economy. And BMW is a juicy car account; the lifeblood of any ad agency lucky enough to get one. Car accounts spend real money. They pay the rent, salaries, health care, benefits and IRAs. The fallout from such a loss is potentially crushing.

Where exactly will Fallon turn for the next $160 million account? To Japan, and Sony? Not quite. (These days, there are no U.S. electronics accounts; remember dear old Zenith? Try LG.) How about China? What, for low-priced denims you buy at Wal-Mart? Please. They don't spend diddly.

Back to Germany for some other car? Detroit? Don't expect Detroit to do anything leading-edge in the car lot anytime soon.

For Pat Fallon, it's "perception vs. reality" all over again.

Perception: "Do great work and clients will seek you out." -Bill Bernbach.

Reality: "Do great work ... thank you and goodbye." -Bayerische Motoren Werke.

Richard Calderhead, a longtime ad executive at shops including Young & Rubicam and DDB, was also principal in Calderhead Jackson and Calderhead & Phin. He currently runs Strategic Consulting in New York.

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