Editorial: CEO can't duck when ads flop

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More CEOs need to be like Phil Marineau. Only there's a catch.

What's good about Mr. Marineau, CEO of Levi Strauss & Co.? Answer: He is involved with his company's advertising. If the ads don't work, he says so-plainly, and in Mr. Marineau's case, publicly, too. Mr. Marineau roundly condemned, to an audience of analysts, no less than his company's high-stakes Super Bowl TV spot for its critical new Type One jeans line. ("It didn't have a sense of humor about itself," CEO Marineau said of the ad, which put a sultry young couple wearing Type Ones in the path of stampeding bison. "It was certainly a poor Super Bowl ad.")

The catch? If the CEO trashes the ads, the CEO shares in the blame, too. Advertising is the public face of the company, and for a fashion marketer such as Levi Strauss, its advertising is the embodiment of its brand and style image-as important, perhaps more so, than decisions about pricing and retail channels. And no Super Bowl ad is likely to air without a CEO's blessing.

Mr. Marineau is hardly the first CEO, and won't be the last, to see a major ad campaign fizzle. Type One sales are below target, and the brand's success is vital to Levi Strauss' strategy. So the advertising must be scrutinized-along with everything else about the product and the way it's sold. If Mr. Marineau is correct that the "stampeding bison" commercial was "not a Levi's ad," then as CEO he needs to help frame the definition of what a Levi's ad is. The advertising VP and the ad agency are key players in this, but the issue is so fundamental to a marketer's identity that the CEO can't avoid being the ultimate judge.

Is the pressure on Type One agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty? You bet. But more often than not, great campaigns come from great clients. So CEO Marineau needs to put some heat on himself. If the next Type One ads aren't "Levi's ads," who else is there to blame?

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