Less than a week ago, Chevy announced that it would be firing Campbell-Ewald, its advertising agency of over 90 years. This is the firm that brought us the Heartbeat of America, Like A Rock, and American Revolution ad campaigns, some of the best-loved and most memorable car ads in American history. Now it has been dismissed. The sad fact remains that unless you or someone you know works in the advertising business, you probably never give a second thought to the agency behind the ads you see -- and rightly so. Companies hire agencies to make the brand the star, not the agency behind the scenes.
Still, there are consequences to this decision for a lot of people. As a marketer, I tend to think of the talent at Campbell-Ewald and how -- despite their careful custody of the brand and passion for the vehicles they touted -- these people are now on the razor's edge, potentially leaving another huge hole in the Detroit economy. Campbell-Ewald has over 1,100 employees in four offices including Detroit, and 25% of its business was directly related to Chevrolet.
But mourning Campbell-Ewald's loss is hardly my point. The truth of the matter is that as much of a blow as this is to the agency, it's probably going to be an even bigger surprise to Chevy, once it finishes congratulating itself on making such a big move.
You Get What You Ask For
What I mean by this can be illustrated by my experience at Chrysler. When we were the lead client -- the Chevy, as it were -- we did a bit of agency shuffling ourselves. We orchestrated a multi-cultural agency review and we were also involved in an effort to merge two agencies that had previously worked on the Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge accounts. The thinking behind all the disruption was that we would get "better" work. But in the end, the lesson I learned from this whole process was that the client, meaning the car company, gets what it asks for, regardless of who the agency of record is.
Certainly agencies have different skills, talent, and ideas that make them better suited to certain types of campaigns. But I can tell you first hand that agencies do what they are paid to do, and one of their greatest complaints is that their client does not allow them to push the envelope of marketing. Today that might mean social networking, blogging, or just the advertising creative. But at the end of the day, the messages that the consumer experiences are approved and guided by the client, not the agency. So if that is true, why do companies change agencies? Usually, most agency upheavals come as a result of new people who want to shake things up and put their own mark on the business. Sometimes, the company or client truly sees opportunities that it feels the current agency is simply not qualified to handle. And other times, it's as simple as casting the agency as a scapegoat. I think all of these motivations are playing into the situation at Chevy, as GM tries to convince the world that it's not the same old company, post-bankruptcy.
Let's be honest, GM needs to show results, any results, to a suspicious public that now owns a majority stake in the automaker. And I think Chevy could indeed use a more modern marketing effort. I have written before about Toyota's social marketing efforts, or lack thereof. GM isn't doing much better. Just assess the simple metrics of Twitter followers: Of the major auto manufacturer's, Ford seems to lead the way with just over 30,000 followers. GM, VW and the rest trail, and I know I may sound like a broken record here, but compare that to Southwest Airlines who has over a million followers!
Now, you can't tell me that the brand experience of flying on a commercial airline is so much better than owning and driving a car. C'mon, these companies sell Mustangs, Corvettes, and Beetles! These are legendary products with huge enthusiast networks, and seriously, these companies can't manage more than 30,000 Twitter fans? This may be one tiny element in a broad marketing effort but I think you can see the point.
We Have Seen The Enemy
I remember being taken to task by my boss's boss when I was at Chrysler, about the ads that we were developing. This manager screamed and yelled about the work, which frustrated me because he was looking for a different result from the agency even though he had yelled and screamed at them about the specific elements he wanted in the ads themselves. He was unwilling to let the agency do their work and insisted on giving frame-by-frame direction and then was angry about the finished product. That, my friends, is the definition of insanity. I can't help but wonder whether Campbell-Ewald and Chevy were facing this type of situation? I also wonder if Chevy is just too risk-averse to have actually allowed Campbell-Ewald to stretch the envelope in terms of its progressive marketing tactics? Might it be possible that Chevy was just underwhelmed by the agency's capabilities? Maybe. But as Chevy forges ahead in its new relationship with Publicis Worldwide, I hope it can remember Harry Truman's old saying. Because no matter how many scapegoats are tossed, no matter how many chairs are shuffled, the buck stops with the people in charge. Until they change, nothing else will.