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Sony Europe is inviting three international networks to reinvent its communications strategy, a move that could put some or all of its estimated $120 million in European ad business up for grabs.

BBDO Worldwide, Young & Rubicam and DDB Needham Worldwide were briefed last week at Sony Europe's headquarters in Cologne and will work on the project during the summer before making presentations to Sony, a spokesman said.

As for what will happen to Sony's account, "we don't know until the agencies we've invited to the review come up with suggestions," the spokesman said.

Currently, Sony has no agency of record for all of Europe, instead relying on local shops including Bartle Bogle Hegarty, London, for the U.K. and Ernst & Partner, Duesseldorf, for Germany. Three pan-European assignments for Sony TVs and MiniDisc were won earlier this year by BBH, Ernst and London shop Abbott Mead Vickers/BBDO.

The impetus for change comes from Ron Sommer, who became president-chief operating officer of Sony Europe a year ago after returning from a stint as president of Sony Corp. of America. Within months of moving to the U.S. in 1991, Mr. Sommer shifted Sony's $25 million U.S. account to Leo Burnett USA, Chicago. Burnett was involved in the first phase of the review but did not make the final cut, people close to the review said.

Since Mr. Sommer's return to Europe, Sony has started experimenting with a more pan-European approach despite some managers' apparent preference for local advertising and agencies.

"Sony's local companies had a large degree of independence, and some of them don't want to give that up," said an agency executive familiar with the company.

Just last month, a marketing headquarters was established for each of Sony Europe's product groups, a major structural change.

The TV headquarters is in London, audio and video in Amsterdam, and videotape in Cologne. Each product group head reports to Mr. Sommer.

Brenda Jones, Sony U.K. senior marketing manager who added the new title of head of advertising for Sony Europe at the end of 1993, is conducting the current agency review.

Sony's U.S. consumer electronics agency, Leo Burnett Co., Chicago, was involved in the first phase of the review but did not make the final cut, people close to the review said. That's somewhat surprising given Burnett's close connection to Mr. Sommer, who led the decision to award Burnett Sony's American account in May 1991.

The increasing pan-European emphasis is widely attributed to Mr. Sommer, though Ms. Jones said: "We very much support the European process. It is a natural progression."

She said pan-European advertising should lead to improved standards and greater efficiency as well as cost savings.

Europe's recession has depressed consumer electronics sales and, even in strong markets where it's a leader, Sony's share has dropped.

Sony's electronics sales in the U.S. increased 15% in the all-important Christmas quarter compared with the year-earlier period. But in Europe, sales were flat.

In the U.K., Sony is the No. 1 marketer of camcorders, TVs and personal stereos. But the company's share by volume of the U.K. camcorder market has fallen to 23% in 1993 from 32% in '91, according to Datamonitor, a U.K. market research group.

Sony's share of personal stereo sales fell 4.7 points to 26% in the same period, while its TV market share rose 2.2 points to 10.3%. Ranking No. 2 in the compact disc market, Sony dropped 6 points to a 10% share in '93.

Sony's last major new-product introduction, the MiniDisc player, got off to a slow start, attributed by agency executives to problems with supply, high costs and unwieldy size.

Ms. Jones said a smaller, second-generation MiniDisc player is being introduced in Europe this month, backed by a TV campaign from Abbott Mead. She also said prices for the units will eventually drop.

In a somewhat strange division of labor on other new products, Sony has three agencies handling two products, while print and TV work on the same product are shared by different agencies.

The pan-European assignment for TV spots hyping Sony's new Super Triniton TV that broke early this month went to Abbott Mead; print ads for Triniton and Sony's MiniDisc went to Ernst and break in June; and BBH picked up TV and cinema campaigns for MiniDisc, also set to start in June.

Sony is already somewhat familiar with agencies in the current review. Y&R's Amsterdam office did some work last year on the Discman personal CD player and DDB Needham has also handled local assignments.

Ms. Jones said no changes will be made before the end of the year, so for 1994 at least, local and pan-European advertising will exist side by side.

Declining to give details, she said local agencies will still be involved in areas like trade and dealer advertising, and products not yet sold across Europe.

Contributing to this story: Dagmar Mussey, Bruce Crumley and Bradley Johnson.

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