Every few months, Ford Motor Co., J. Walter Thompson Co.'s largest client, summons Ford account leaders to its huge Detroit conference room for a "show and tell" in its most souped-up form.
The setting has been likened to ancient Rome's Coliseum, only here the agency gladiators must stand and deliver while surrounded not by lions but by no-nonsense clients asking lots of questions.
The story goes that major JWT executives-names we'd recognize, Masters of the Madison Avenue Universe in their own right-have gone wobbly, pale and blubbery in this U-shaped arena.
But back in '81, when a relative newcomer to the Ford account held forth in that "pit," it seemed they could never lay a glove on him. Thus, Peter Schweitzer became something of a JWT legend. He'd rise to every challenge, hold his ground, stand tall, stay cool, whatever.
As one JWT witness recalled, "He was liking the challenge more and more, and Ford really liked him, too. Peter just kept going, kept hitting home runs for us." Mr. Schweitzer, 62, doesn't see what the fuss is about. "You level with them and always try to do your very best," he explained. "Ford is fair-tough, but fair. You get beat up if you drop the ball, but you get to try again. It's their money, after all, that drives this particular partnership, and it's serious business."
So it was no surprise in January 2001 when Peter Schweitzer, the genial, casually dressed, bewhiskered "gearhead" who used to tool around Detroit in a '56 "street rod," or go boating back when he had more leisure time-was elevated to president-CEO of JWT. Only the eighth CEO in JWT's 138-year history, he's the first to be Detroit-based.
Chicago boy makes good
A Chicago native who grew up in Battle Creek, Mich., he graduated from the University of Michigan in 1961, joining General Foods' Post division in Battle Creek. He then transferred to GF's marketing headquarters in White Plains, N.Y., earned an MBA and went over to the agency side in 1968 as a management supervisor at Grey Advertising. In 1973, he joined Kenyon & Eckhardt and two years later moved on to JWT, where he served such clients as Warner-Lambert, Eastman Kodak and Burger King. In 1978, Burger King made him an offer-VP-marketing and strategic corporate planning director. After BK, Mr. Schweitzer headed back to JWT, where he hooked up with the Ford account and started to climb the JWT ladder-vice chairman of agency operations worldwide; president-chief operating officer; chairman, JWT North America; exec VP-general manager of JWT's Detroit office in 1993; and president-chief operating officer, before earning his latest title.
In 1994, with JWT President USA Burt Manning planning to retire in '95, Mr. Schweitzer was asked if he would return to New York to succeed him. He said "No, thanks," since he and his wife, Elaine, and family-he's the father of six-preferred life in Detroit, where he had become involved in the city's civic and philanthropic life.
So Mr. Manning postponed retirement-until 1998, when Chris Jones was ready to succeed him. However, as Mr. Jones' health began to fail, Mr. Schweitzer agreed to take on the top job.
Assembles "dream team"
In putting together his Ford account "dream team" at JWT's One Detroit Center offices last December, Mr. Schweitzer recruited one of the West Coast's creative stars, Tom Cordner Jr., and installed him in Detroit as exec VP-executive creative director, worldwide, and creative director on Ford. Mr. Cordner, former co-chairman and executive creative director at Team One, El Segundo, Calif., earned widespread honors for the Lexus introductory campaign.
Earlier, to generate closer collaboration between media planning and buying, Andy Prakken, 45, was named executive communications director at Ford Motor Media, JWT's integrated media unit. Brimming with energy and ideas, Mr. Prakken also retained his old title of director-communications planning operation. Rounding out the core Ford team are veteran JWT creative leader Mike Priebe, executive creative group director, who works closely with Mr. Cordner, and Dave Latta, senior partner-executive managing partner.
The big "get" came earlier this month when Sean Neall, 51, returned to the agency as exec VP-Ford global business director. Mr. Neall, who earlier spent 13 years at JWT's Detroit office as account manager on all Ford car and truck brands, not only gets to work with Mr. Schweitzer again, but he reunites with Steve Lyons on the client side. Mr. Lyons, the new Ford Division president, worked with Mr. Neall back when Mr. Lyons was Ford Division marketing general manager.
In 1997, parent WPP Group moved Mr. Neall to its Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide office in London, where he served until 2000 as director of client services on Ford accounts. Mr. Neall left Ogilvy in 2000 to become VP-European operations for Urban Sciences, a global management consultancy with a big-time auto client list. Returning to JWT, Mr. Neall succeeds another veteran Detroit marketing figure, Mike O'Malley, who spent 13 years at General Motors Corp. before venturing onto the agency side after Mr. Neall's transfer in 2000.
Mr. Schweitzer expects Mr. Neall to pick up where he left off three years ago, maintaining a smooth work flow among U.S. and international account managers, watching costs and staying on top of what JWT's 800 Ford account people are doing. JWT's quarterly leadership team meetings help fine-tune the process.
Mr. Schweitzer's Ford team, moving well beyond traditional media advertising, meets regularly to blend user-friendly technology into Ford-related digital imaging, state-of-the-art point-of-purchase technology, computer games, ski outings, Nascar events, auto show displays and dealer Web site design.
For the approaching launch of Ford's redesigned F-150 truck, the JWT team has developed a digitized, computer-generated portable "show" that flashes across a 100-ft.-wide, 12-ft.-tall screen. They also are plugged into Ford's Imagination team, where the long-range fine-tuning of concept cars goes on, and participate in an ongoing, cutting-edge Marketing Intelligence Group that gleans useful competitive information.
To maximize synergies for Ford campaigns, Mr. Prakken turns to data-based planners to target prospective car or SUV buyers, always with an eye on return-on-investment gauges. As a supplier of Ford Web sites, JWT sets goals for Explorer buyers and prospects.
"It's important to us that we retain control of media," said Mr. Prakken, pleased that parent WPP enables JWT's Ford team to work independently of WPP's centralized media planning and buying unit, MindSpring.
Clearly, Mr. Schweitzer and his crew get involved in all Ford-related matters; when the Firestone tire-Explorer crisis erupted in 1995, it was obvious that JWT's views would be sought. Mr. Latta recalled that Ford was advised to stick with its Explorer, remain committed to its SUVs and, by so doing, overcome adversity and come back.
Ford understood the importance of its brand, stuck with its SUVs and added support to its blue oval Ford logo. Said Mr. Latta, "It was vital for Ford's individual brands to feed into, and off of, the company's history and integrity."
This "get into the mix" approach is what Mr. Schweitzer's management style is about. He expects his Ford people to be aggressive, totally involved in the client's business and ready to accept any assignment. "Getting together with my team, we can come up with solutions to any problems," he said. An example: Some years ago, Ford bought a batch of season tickets to the new baseball park in Cleveland. They were for a dealer reward program.
Mr. Schweitzer continues: "I found myself volunteering to set up the program. I didn't have a clue about how to do it, but I knew that once I got back to the office and talked it over, we'd come up with a program. And we did. It's surprising how ideas surface at meetings you went into without having any ideas."
Does Ford pay extra for this kind of help? "If you concentrate only on your own business, you die. Ford is a very tough-minded client, but, as I said, they're also very fair. Very fair in pay; very fair in handling us and helping us. And that's the secret-fairness," Mr. Schweitzer said.
Looking back at the JWT-Ford relationship and what they have achieved, he says he believes the agency and its client were doing integrated marketing long before college courses titled "Integrated Marketing 1" came along. "We invented it," he says. "And here's another: That expression, 24/7? I think it got invented here, too, with these guys." He points out his office door, in the direction of his Ford crew, and beams.