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Old and Improved: Relationships That Last for a Century

Clients and Agencies Cite Trust, Respect, Adaptation. If There's a Problem, Change the People, not the Shop

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LOS ANGELES ( -- JWT has been on Unilever's roster since 1902, back when William Hesketh Lever was making soap and James Walter Thompson was making ads. But that's not Unilever's oldest relationship -- its work with Lowe & Partners and predecessors dates to 1899.

Flash forward: Unilever, the world's second-largest ad spender, in 2010 was named Advertiser of the Year at Cannes. Keith Weed, Unilever's chief marketing and communications officer, credits these long-term relationships as "part of our success."

In a world where relationship status may be as fleeting as a Facebook fling, lasting partnerships can and do produce winning work.

Unilever is not alone in cultivating remarkably long relationships. Among the world's four largest advertisers, three firms -- Procter & Gamble Co., Unilever and General Motors Co. -- have relationships with major agencies dating to 1922 or earlier.

Here's a look at some of the industry's longest-lived marriages -- relationships that have lasted through mergers, recessions, bankruptcies, management upheaval and the emergence of new media from radio to TV to digital.


Unilever's oldest relationship began with Lever Brothers' 1899 formation of an in-house agency, which evolved into standalone agency Lintas (Lever International Advertising Service). It later became part of Lowe.

Unilever and its agencies take nothing for granted. "The day that we think we have a relationship with Unilever because we always have [had one] is the day we will be in trouble," Tony Wright, Lowe's chairman, is quick to note.

Jagdip Bakshi, JWT's global business director on Unilever, said the marketer has "perhaps the most evolved appraisal system in [the] industry," with a six-month appraisal update and "watershed annual appraisal."

"The appraisal is not just one way," Mr. Bakshi said. "The agency does a reverse appraisal of the client, which is taken very seriously. This sets up a system of checks and balances where both sides have very high stakes in investing in the work and the relationship."

A common thread Ad Age heard in discussions with century-long client-agency partners is that trust and understanding lead to better work.

"What we're trying to do is create advertising that has creativity and innovation on one side," said Unilever's Mr. Weed, "and effectiveness and efficiencies on the other. ... You get the best creativity where there's a level of trust." Mr. Weed added: "You get much-better-quality advice from somebody who knows you well than somebody who doesn't know you well."

Mr. Wright said Lowe's Unilever team includes a diverse mix of account veterans and newer members, ensuring a balance of client knowledge and fresh perspective. What if things aren't working out? Then it may be time to change the people on the agency side or client side, Mr. Weed said, since that is less disruptive than changing an agency.

Unilever does have the ability to shift accounts among its roster of agency companies and networks.

Mr. Weed sees a downside to opening up formal agency reviews. "Pitches are very risky things," he said, because a new agency will put its best foot forward in a review, but might not be able to deliver. "Who's to say the next pasture is greener?"


When BBDO landed General Electric Co. as a client in 1920, radio was new media: The previous year GE had helped form Radio Corp. of America, which went on to launch National Broadcasting Co. Today, BBDO promotes GE with iPhone ads.

GE is a company that never stops reinventing itself -- unloading the toaster division, entering and exiting plastics, buying back RCA and NBC in 1986 and then selling control of NBC in 2011.

Through all the change, BBDO has been a constant: GE has not reviewed the account since hiring the agency.

Paradoxically, this relationship -- and other relationships discussed in this story -- have lasted so long in part because the marketers and agencies have changed so much. Companies and relationships must evolve if they are to survive. John Osborn, president-CEO of BBDO, New York, said GE's focus on innovation means there is never a finish line and no chance for complacency.

"It's the combination of knowing our business, understanding our culture but also not being us -- having an outsider's perspective -- that is incredibly valuable," said Judy Hu, GE's global executive director of advertising and branding.

Don Schneider, executive creative director at BBDO, New York, said the relationship is based on mutual respect built over time.

Ms. Hu said GE has stayed with BBDO because of the strength of its work. She added: "If I didn't think that the agency was the best, I would have no qualms about changing in a second."


Henry Ford employed J. Walter Thompson to sell Model Ts more than a century ago, but that relationship did not last. The automaker rehired JWT in 1943 with good intent ("We trust that the arrangement we made will prove to be mutually satisfactory") but also a caveat ("Ford Motor Co. may at any time terminate the arrangement").

For the past 68 years, Ford has stuck with JWT -- and now a broader WPP agency called Team Detroit -- in good times and bad. Times are good again: Ad Age named Ford its 2010 Marketer of the Year, cars are selling, and 2010 profits were the highest in more than a decade. Team Detroit made Ad Age's 2011 A-List of successful agencies.

WPP created Team Detroit in 2006 as a joint venture of five Ford agencies -- JWT, Ogilvy & Mather, Y&R, Wunderman, Mindshare -- WPP had amassed over the years. WPP last year set up a similar Ford agency in Europe (Blue Hive) and is preparing to open Ford hubs in Asia-Pacific and Latin America.

Team Detroit President-CEO George Rogers said the concept of a Ford-focused agency was partly about efficiency, but Team Detroit's structure, and common P&L, also means the agency is "100% agnostic" about specific marketing-communications services and media -- TV, social media -- so it can recommend whatever makes sense. "Our business model is perfectly suited for this different, real transformation" going on in communications, he said.

Team Detroit still works for a family company. Henry Ford hired JWT in 1910 and, late in life, in 1943. His great-great granddaughter, Elena Ford, is responsible for implementing Ford's marketing vision globally including the launch of the 2012 Ford Focus. Ford is "not an anonymous name on a logo," Mr. Rogers said.

Team Detroit could hardly be closer to its client: The agency office is across the street from world headquarters, and the landlord is Ford. Said Mr. Rogers: "We have a very long-term lease."


How well does DraftFCB know Sunkist? Don Belding, the B in DraftFCB, was account manager on Sunkist at FCB predecessor shop Lord & Thomas. The agency in 1908 coined the brand name "Sunkist" for its client, the California Fruit Growers Exchange. DraftFCB today acts as a sort of global outsourced marketing department, pitching in on everything from trade shows to sales calls on major retailers.

"It's almost as if they are an extension of our marketing," said Leland Wong, director of marketing at Sunkist Growers. DraftFCB is its agency of record in North America, Japan, South Korea, China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia.

The citrus-growers cooperative, with about 100 employees at its suburban Los Angeles headquarters, is a lean but very global marketer. It draws on the agency network's resources including research, promotional services and translating marketing programs across cultures and languages. Integrated marketing -- the idea behind Interpublic's 2006 merger of ad agency FCB and marketing-services shop Draft -- fits neatly with Sunkist's needs.

Hilary Hamer, DraftFCB senior VP-group management director, said the agency keeps the relationship fresh by adapting to Sunkist's changing needs. For example, the agency is helping launch a retailer-specific marketing program in Japan, with plans to roll out the program to other markets in Asia.

DraftFCB can't take Sunkist for granted. Mr. Wong noted any relationship, whether it be social or business, is tested every day. Sunkist put the account up for review in 1999. The agency kept the business.

How to keep a marriage going? Consider a memo from Fairfax Cone (the C in DraftFCB) in 1967 on the 60th anniversary of the Sunkist relationship:

"Wise advertisers and wise advertising agencies watch for any sign of dissatisfaction, or misunderstanding, on either side, and seek to remedy the trouble by whatever means are necessary. Usually, the difficulty is no more than a matter of incompatibility between certain members of the association, and the shift of one or two of these heals the rift and preserves the marriage that would otherwise flounder and break up."


This relationship is 99 years old, but whether it gets to the century mark is up to ExxonMobil.

The world's largest oil company last fall began a review of global advertising, media and marketing-services accounts, now split among three holding companies: Interpublic ( McCann Erickson), Omnicom ( DDB, which won Mobil in 1964) and Havas (Euro RSCG, which handles corporate ads). The company didn't respond to a request for comment on the McCann relationship.

It all started when Harrison King McCann joined Standard Oil as head of the advertising department. He hadn't been there long when the Supreme Court in 1911 ordered the breakup of John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil empire. Mr. McCann left to open an agency to work for all the newly separated companies. Over time, all oil clients except Jersey Standard (later Exxon) moved to other agencies. H.K. McCann Co. merged with Erickson Co. in 1930.

After Exxon merged with Mobil in 1999, McCann faced off against Mobil's agency, DDB. McCann won the lubricants business (such as Mobil 1); DDB landed the fuels account.

Lee Johnson, McCann's worldwide account director on ExxonMobil, said the agency benefits from its vast institutional knowledge about the client. "McCann Erickson has a very deep empathy with and understanding of the culture of the ExxonMobil company," he said. "To a certain extent, our cultures grew up together."

Mr. Johnson said ExxonMobil values long-term relationships, but he emphasizes McCann should be judged by the quality of work it's doing now. "No one is employing you or keeping you based on history," he said.

In a 1958 Ad Age interview, Harry McCann looked back at the 1912 start of his agency. "We had only newspapers and magazines then. We had no radio or television. Clients did some of their own advertising, and we did some. Today clients are demanding more and more services -- and justifiably."

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