Ford's Focus Challenge A Big One For An Ad Agency

Posted by: David Kiley on June 13, 2007

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The shake up at Ford is underway. Ford North America president Mark Fields and Ford ad director Barry Engle are opening up its advertising assignments, with the struggling automaker seeking a new ad agency to come up with some ideas for pushing the 2008 Focus. Ford’s long-time ad agency, J. Walter Thompson (JWT), retains Ford’s ad account and is being given a chance to pitch for the business.

But Ford is clearly testing the waters for some new creative juice and thinking about the struggling Ford brand. Word is that there are two agencies—both owned by JWT parent WPP—vying for the assignment. I know WPP offers Ford a set price for its work. And, yes, I know that Ford has to watch its pennies. But if I were Mark Fields, sales and marketing chief Cisco Codina or Ford ad chief Barry Engle, I’d be looking outside WPP at New York agencies Strawberry Frog, Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners, Mother, Anomaly, as well as The Martin Agency of Richmond and perhaps Fallon Worldwide of Minneapolis.

The 2008 Focus is an important vehicle for Ford. The current Focus is a heavily rebated under-appreciated budget sub-compact. Its reputation in the U.S. was severely damaged between 1999 and 2004 when it had numerous well publicized recalls. Quality has improved greatly, but Ford still hasn’t been able to rehab the car’s image despite he fact that it was on Car & Driver’s Top Ten list several years in a row.

The Focus, despite its early critical success, has also been the victim of Ford neglect. When the automaker launched a new Focus in Europe, it carried over the old model in the U.S. with cosmetic improvements because the models’ poor rep for quality wouldn’t allow Ford to charge enough to cover the costs of a new design. As it is, Ford loses around $3,000 a car because of heavy discounting and high-cost manufacturing in Michigan. So, the media, which hailed the new European Focus has constantly reminded readers that the U.S. was getting sloppy seconds. I couldn’t help but grimace (since I am a fan of the current Focus as a great value proposition) as I heard Car and Driver’s Mark Gillies at the Detroit Auto Show bad-mouth the Focus to a group he was leading around the show floor. I thought: “C’mon dude. The car is $12,000 out the door.” I know what Mark was getting at. The Focus was a good thing when it came out, and it shouldn’t have to saved nine years later. It should be thriving like Honda Civic.

The real worry for Ford is that the new Focus design caught nothing but bad buzz at that auto show among the press corp. It will be offered only as a four door and two-door coupe. Ford has reduced the manufacturing complexity to lower costs in the hopes of making a profit on each car. The current Focus comes in a four door sedan, four door hatch and two-door hatch. The four-door wagon was already killed off.

Ford CEO Alan Mulally, who is a design engineer by training, nevertheless has some strong opinions about marketing and the Ford brand. Having come from Boeing last September, he has absolutely no reason to be loyal to JWT nor does he have any interest in protecting the agency politically. All he is interested in is moving the needle on sales and building up the brand. he is relentless about investing in every facet of the Ford brand globally.

JWT is part of WPP Group plc. JWT recently joined with other WPP agencies Y&R (Lincoln and Mercury) and Ogilvy & Mather (corporate advertising) and other WPP vendors working for Ford in new office space on the other side of the Southfield Freeway from Ford headquarters. If JWT doesn’t retain the Focus assignment, it will be a blow to its stature and pride. If I were them, I’d be pulling out the creative stops to knock Mulally and Co. off their feet with ideas.

It won’t be easy with a design that has already been graded “M” for Mediocre. The two things the Focus has going for it in the 2008 version is the availability of Sync, the telematics system that Ford developed with Microsoft and Nuance Communications that, among other things, reads text messages to the driver through the car stereo, as well as fuel economy that reaches around 37 mpg on the highway. Both features should be of great interest to buyers under 30.

Ford has been very much a company with an “agency of record.” And JWT has been doing some very effective work n the last year—the Fusion Challenge campaign and current ads for the Ford Expedition to name two efforts. But companies are realizing that a very effective tool in creative marketing management is to invite other agencies to pitch a single product or campaign as a way of pressuring an agency or shopping for a new one.

Reader Comments

Nancy

June 19, 2007 8:53 AM

David, I found you comments interesting. I am the proud owner of a '97 Escort, getting 35 mpg without a lick of trouble until 140,000 miles!! I am debating between purchase of a Pontiac Vibe or Ford Focus, the decendant of the beloved Escort. Do you have thoughts on which is a better car? --Would appreciate your views. Thanks! N

phil

June 26, 2007 8:44 AM

Well written story and very much to the point. It seems like every time an american automaker brings out a car they destroy the brand before it gets a chance, but there are a few exceptions. The Chrysler Sebring, Dodge Ram, Dodge Durango, and the Ford Focus are among the failures, but the Pontiac Vibe has been successful because the design is nice and the engineering is solid (thanks to toyota). Personally I think the ford focus was a better looking car when it first came out and I even rented one. I was very impressed with the handling, but the powertrain felt sluggish. The moral of this story is long term planning out weighs short term thinking. The old mazda protege was an excellent platform to be used, but it needed better MPG numbers to compete and more likely than not ford deemed it too expensive to use. So lets examine this situation: short sighted thinking in terms of cost and execution outweight consumer demands and perceptions. Don't ask me, ask Chrysler. Their stupid executives approved the new sebring and you see the results.

Peter Canston

July 31, 2008 3:47 AM

This sure is a nice car, but I think i will pass this one and tke the Ford Focus rs , it's more comfortable :D. http://www.carchannel.be/nl/artikel/ford/avant-premi%C3%A8re-erg-sportieve-nieuwe-ford-focus-rs it's very nice in green.

Norman R. Cohen

May 8, 2010 8:03 PM

With all the fanfare, I was looking forward with great anticipation to your new format. I have been rather disappointed since I feel that one story runs into another and it is very difficult to make the transition. In addition, the section "In Brief," I find the typeface so small that I have great difficulty reading it.

Please consider reverting to your previous style with each story having a separate headline with readable typeface.

Thank you,

Norman R. Cohen
Charlotte, North Carolina

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