Inside the Pitch: How Mullen Drove Away With Acura

'Emotional Component' Won Over CMO; Honda to Get Fresh Approach From RPA

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With a flashy and well-researched pitch, Interpublic Group of Cos.' Mullen won American Honda's Acura account over incumbent RPA and others by promising to focus Acura's message and inject more emotion into ads.

Mullen offered "wicked-awesome creative" and a sharp focus on what's been missing from Acura's marketing, American Honda Chief Marketing Officer Mike Accavitti told Automotive News.

Honda Accord EX-L V6 Sedan
Honda Accord EX-L V6 Sedan

Mullen produced a barrage of 26 videos -- a mix of ad concepts, "brand essence" videos, campaign outlines and overviews. One was a manifesto called "It's Time to Stop Wandering," a reference to Acura's marketing inconsistency since its 1986 launch.

To boost the wow factor, Mullen rolled out a blockbuster 4-by-8-foot diorama of a proposed commercial shoot. It had moving parts that included an automated point-of-view camera that moved among the cars to show how a commercial would be shot.

Independent Los Angeles-based RPA handled the creative and media-buying business for both brands before the three-month agency review that started with 20 agencies. RPA held onto the Honda account, but Mr. Accavitti made clear he wants a fresh approach.

"We got good stuff from RPA," he said. "I am proud of the [Matthew Broderick] Super Bowl campaign we did. If we could make everything that impactful and awesome and cool, that would be great. But we weren't getting that." Mr. Accavitti said RPA's recent work and institutional knowledge allowed it to retain the Honda business.

Mr. Accavitti described the Acura work by Mullen as filling "the emotional component" that had been missing. "We have these great, luxurious products, but there's a gap between the customer perception of what Acura is, and the luxury that is in our cars," he said.

Honda marketers were impressed by the level of automotive experience among the agency's executives -- President Alex Leikikh was on the BMW account at Fallon; Creative Chief Mark Wenneker has worked on Saturn, Hyundai and Saab; Chief Strategy Officer Kristen Cavallo helped create VW's "Drivers Wanted" campaign at Arnold and was at Mullen when it had the BMW account in the 1990s. Also on staff are several ex-Modernista creatives who worked on Cadillac and Hummer, and some Arnold/VW veterans.

Mullen pushed hard for the Honda business, making separate pitches, even using separate conference rooms to represent each brand. In the end, though, RPA showed "an improved consistency of message" that got the nod.

Publicis Groupe's MediaVest won media duties on both brands. Mr. Accavitti said the company will now "redirect any savings associated with this agency structure back into the marketplace" but change up its mix. "There was a heavily TV-centric marketing focus in this place when I got here. So we started to increase the amount of funds spent in digital. That will continue."

He specifically pointed to Acura. "Acura's been very TV-centric and that's not necessarily where we want to be with a luxury brand," he said. "If you look at the current launch with RLX luxury sedan, you'll see that the percentage spent on TV is less than 40%."

Mark Rechtin is a writer for Automotive News. Contributing: Alexandra Bruell

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