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Mary Newcombe
Mary Newcombe
What does it take to make a car out of cake? According to Mary Newcombe, Skoda's U.K. head of marketing, it takes a little bit of courage and a lot of trust. Earlier this year, Newcombe greenlighted "The Baking of," a commercial created by longtime agency Fallon/London and directed by Chris Palmer of Gorgeous, in which master bakers assemble the Czech carmaker's latest model, the Fabia, completely out of baked goods. The spot was a huge success, creating buzz unseen in the U.K. auto world since Honda's "Cog." "In terms of PR coverage, we've never seen anything like it," Newcombe explains. But that doesn't mean it wasn't scary.

"Frankly, it was the most frightening idea ever," she says. "I could see at the time it could be either brilliant or a huge catastrophe. It was all or nothing." Newcombe says she went "utterly wobbly" shortly after approving the commercial, as she worried that the execution wouldn't work or that consumers—there was no time for testing—wouldn't respond to the idea. What makes a client take those odds? In this case, it was the trust that has developed out of Skoda's long-running relationship with Fallon. Her predecessor, Chris Hawken, hired the agency seven years ago to solve Skoda's most pressing problem, which was that it was—quite literally—a joke. Brits told jokes wherein the brand was the punchline. Fallon leveraged this cultural fact earlier in the decade with a successful campaign that indulged people's perceptions of the brand and suggested—somewhat obliquely, with the line "It's a Skoda. Honest."—that they just might be surprised. "I took over on the back of an extremely successful campaign and have been living up to it every since," explains Newcombe, who says she was a "rank amateur" at advertising when she took her post in 2002—although she had direct marketing experience and had worked for Skoda parent company VW since college.

In 2006, after years of humility and self-deprecation, the company decided to change its strategy to emphasize its high rates of customer satifaction. "We felt over the years we'd built the credibility to be able to say, once and for all, what the brand stood for," Newcombe says. "It's something that we already own."

Armed with a new positioning line—"Manufacturer of Happy Drivers"—Fallon created "Giggle," a brand spot in which car parts have a laugh as they're being assembled. Then, next up was "The Baking of," a concept that could only be proven in the execution, backed by the biggest ad spend the company had ever put behind a model.

"It just felt like the right thing to do, as frightening as the entire process was almost from the moment that I left that room until it was on air," Newcombe says. "What makes you work with the fear as a client is an instinct that it's going to be good, crossed-fingers, and an utter belief that the agency can deliver what they say they're going to. If you're working with people you don't trust, you'd never agree to it. You wouldn't do those flights of fancy. It's got to be born out of a good relationship with Fallon. It has to be." In this case, at least, the relationship—and the risk—paid off. "It went on the all, rather than the nothing," as Newcombe says. Or, as she recalls Fallon managing director Karina Wilsher advising her: "Fortune favors the brave."

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