Ford & JWT: A marriage built to last

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The year is 1943 and Henry Ford, a mere 80 years old, is thinking ahead.

World War II will end one of these days, he tells his associates, and Ford Motor Co. will need to be ready and will need a new ad agency-one with offices around the world-to help sell its cars and trucks.

Which of the "big agencies" has a global reach and is able to start right away if he should decide, say, to sell tractors in India? His aides come back with a name: J. Walter Thompson Co. It has offices in Calcutta and Bombay, installed as part of the agency's decision, in 1927, to build an international network in hopes of getting a Detroit automaker account. By 1941, JWT was in 27 countries.

Mr. Ford's next question: Will a big agency cost more than a small one? Reassured that it wouldn't, he answered, "Well, we might as well have a big one."

Out went his old agency, Maxon Inc., and on Dec. 7, 1943, after a few good meetings, a letter was sent to JWT headquarters in New York, stating in part: "The terms stated in your letter...are satisfactory and are hereby accepted...with the understanding that Ford...may at any time terminate the arrangement by written or verbal notice to your company. We trust that the arrangement...will prove to be mutually satisfactory."

Six decades later, the "arrangement" has grown in scope and significance to a level that not even Henry Ford could have foreseen. Led by longtime Ford account overseer Peter A. Schweitzer, now JWT's president-CEO worldwide, the agency has taken Ford's marketing program far beyond the usual 20th century's media beltway, into cyberspace and the digital byways of the 21st century.

The new media tools are customized for a sophisticated stream of youth-oriented special events that can involve elaborate Nascar-related promotions, virtual displays inside trailer trucks at race courses, online sweepstakes, all designed to generate and sustain on-and-off-line customer relationships.

Historically, Ford-JWT circa 1943 is really Ford-JWT II, for between 1909 and 1920, JWT stationed people in a Detroit office and struggled along with clients ranging from fledgling automakers to Joe's Honest Harness Co. It served Ford for two years, and the Dec. 5, 1910, issue of The Saturday Evening Post carried a JWT spread headed: "When Ford speaks, the world listens." The subhead, signed by Mr. Ford, stated: "Buy a Ford car because it is a better car-not because it is cheaper." His new Model T's began at $600, stripped. The copy boasted that Ford's "normal" work force of 4,000 men was building 30,000 cars a year, three times more than rivals with 8,000 workers. A little over a year later, Ford parted company with JWT.

In 1943, after JWT resigned some institutional Chrysler business at its New York office and sent future JWT Chairman Norman Strouse to open a new Detroit office, Ford creative work was assigned to JWT's Chicago office. It shifted to New York in 1946 and stayed until '84, when the car portion of creative work was moved to Detroit. Two years later, with Mr. Schweitzer running the account out of Detroit and insisting on having his Ford team under one roof, creative for Ford trucks left New York. Today, of 574 people in the Detroit office, the creative department numbers 228.

While the post-war era that began 19 months after Ford hired JWT didn't achieve its "world peace" expectations, it clearly did work out in that corner where Ford and JWT were involved, spurred initially by the pent-up demand for new cars.

JWT Detroit would evolve into one of the most influential and unusual agency offices in the business, for it operates independently and has 30 satellite offices of its own to serve 52 of Ford Dealer Advertising Group's 60 separate accounts. This covers work for about 3,800 of 5,000 dealers. The dealer groups get to choose their own agencies, so JWT must serve them on an "earn 'em and keep 'em" basis.

JWT also handles international, Ford Rent A Car, fleet and leasing services (corporate and division), and used cars, and has department managers for the media research, sales promotion, and product information to help its creative department clear copy and art for accuracy.

Today, JWT's forward planning units are at work, alongside Ford's advanced styling teams, on still-secret 2005-06 models. There are interfacings also taking place regularly between JWT people and the Ford Division North America's "blue oval" team, ranging from its chief operating officer for North America through sales, advertising, marketing, brand management and managers. The JWT international group leaders stepped up their collaborative efforts after Ford, in '88, embarked on an aggressive overseas expansion program.

"Every two months, there's a review, a dog and pony show," Mr. Schweitzer said. "It's a very intense business, obviously, and you can't play games. You can't hide. You must stay close to the business, and to each other."

The ad that kicked off the new Ford-JWT relationship appeared during winter 1943-44. It showed a big crystal ball and was captioned, "There's a Ford in your future": plain, simple, right on. Advertising Age said this slogan was intended "to reflect, at least, partial peace and the lifting of restraints and restrictions in civilian life," and was also "attuned" to "a quickened eagerness to own new cars."

Another ad, corporate in scope, pictured a young Henry Ford, as chief engineer for Detroit Edison Co., explaining to his admiring boss, Tom Edison, just how he would build a gas-powered car, a "quadricycle."

With America embarked on a vast highway construction program, and rushing to build homes, malls and suburban communities, Ford set a goal of 10 million new-car owners within 10 years. The accompanying advertising boom saw U.S. ad volume double between 1945 and 1950, to $5.7 billion, and Ford's ad spending propelled JWT beyond $100 million in billings in 1947. JWT became the first ad agency to reach that total.

Before the war, automobile ads generally pictured the car and focused copy points on price-performance-quality. JWT kept breaking that pattern. In 1947, for example, an outdoor campaign showed no car, offered no copy points. It simply related to what was going on with the line, "Best-selling convertible after the Ford V-8." The illustration: a baby buggy.

By 1963, however, JWT's ads were embracing the smart-youthful-stylish theme, with a dash of car-performance tossed in. The Ford Sports Hardtop was called "The Michigan Strong Boy," and copy noted its "ferocious torque," "guts," handling "like a spoon in Jersey cream," and how it "holds the road like the Rock of Gibraltar (and is just about as durable)."

Ford ad spending, $25 million in the mid-'50s, amounted to $2 billion last year (covering 50 nations), and $1.6 billion of it went through JWT to support Ford Focus, Mustang, Ford Econoline trucks, Explorer SUVs and Taurus.

JWT's Ford work is performed on three levels, or "tiers." Tier one focuses on front-line national, or "blue oval" advertising; tier two is creative work and media coordination for the dealer groups, their budgets deriving from per-vehicle assessments; and tier three serves local dealers and their nitty-gritty needs, their "best deal" and "bonus" specials. International ads run countrywide, and all creative work-including local dealers' work-must relate to the Ford oval look du jour.

Dealer service calls for hundreds of versions of ads and commercials for each, plus Web sites, live scripts and outdoor boards, all serving Ford in its different markets. In the '60s, Mr. Strouse, JWT's chairman, described the Ford field rep who maintains hands-on dealer contact as "advertising man, merchandising man, diplomat, personal counselor, social friend and territory traveler," as well as "the eyes and ears of JWT." In a pinch, that is, they can help with other JWT account groups.

The stream of JWT-created slogans over the years ranges from the declarative approach: "... Ford in your future," "Ford's out front," "You 'belong' in a Ford," "It's fun to go Ford," "Ford has a better idea," "America's truck, built Ford tough" to the exclamatory approach: "Enchantment unlimited" for the '54 Thunderbird introduction; "Right size, right price" for Fairlane in '62; for the Mustang in '65, it was, "Open up and say ahhh." In the '70s, JWT supported Ford pickups with, "Works like a truck, rides like a car," the Ford LTD with, "The closer you look, the better we look," and "Ford's new Pinto: Put a little kick in your life."

By 1986, when Taurus was introduced, prelaunch ads whispered: "The word is out. Even before the car is," followed by: "Its performance isn't limited to what's under the hood." And in '91, the Ford Explorer SUV was brought in with "There's a big new world to discover."

The company's four-SUV line led in '99 to JWT's pioneering "No Boundaries" campaign. It merged Internet, direct mail tie-ins and sweepstakes, rugged outdoor sports and special events-linked activity, and led to Ford dealers being referred to as "outfitters." More recently, "No Boundaries" included Ford cars, but it is again backing SUVs while other tier one advertising segues into the newest Ford "anthem," the jaunty "If you haven't looked at a Ford lately, look again." With a jingle composed and performed by the widely popular Randy Newman, "Look again"-a line that is expected to reconnect people with the old "Have you driven a Ford lately?" slogan-will receive full exposure, including Web sites and allied customer relations programs.

Ford this year has doubled its national ad budget, heavying up on national TV, print and newspaper buys, as well as big-event TV sports schedules. The latest Ford F-150 super pickup, the top-selling Ford truck, will get major support this year and expectations run high for it.

Mr. Schweitzer notes that his JWT compadres have successfully blended Ford history into the latest campaigns, with their Internet and event programs. One example is a recent Thunderbird TV spot that brings a T-Bird-admiring Frank Sinatra into the pitch. And despite initial skepticism, the results were positive when Ford Chairman-CEO William Clay Ford Jr. was persuaded to appear in "legacy" TV commercials designed to recall and reinforce Ford values. Unscripted, sentimental, Mr. Ford ranged-up close and personal-through family and company history.

His spots are credited with helping Ford put behind it a bad patch of negative news, such as executive suite upheaval, the Firestone tire recall crisis and its impact on Explorer sales, lawsuits and profitability issues. The feeling is that Bill Ford's effort rang true among Ford dealers, employees and customers, and that he can take his place alongside a long list of Ford celebrity pitchpersons, including Bing Crosby; "Tennes-see" Ernie Ford; Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz; Lauren Bacall; Nat "King" Cole; and Bill Cosby.

From "There's a Ford in your future" to "Look again," the "arrangement" made in 1943 keeps humming right along in high gear. Its "satisfactory" quotient remains "mutual."

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