On Dec. 21, Mini USA Chief Jim McDowell stood before about 20 members of his executive team, plus five members of his newly hired ad agency at the carmaker's New Jersey headquarters, going over critical plans for the coming year. Changes to the Web site, a new ad campaign, and a huge dealer meeting in Detroit the second week of January meant working the holiday week. Everyone was keyed up. But McDowell wasn't fazed. Donning an apron in a conference room equipped with electric frying pans and a buffet table, the 54-year-old orchestrated the morning work session as he made everyone omelettes and home fries. "Cooking relaxes me," he said, grinning.
When McDowell took over MINI last April, the U.S. unit of Germany's BMW was firing on all cylinders. Sales surpassed targets by a mile, and rival carmakers pointed to its marketing campaign, using very few TV ads, as a "buzz" marketing benchmark. Then in September, MINI's celebrated ad agency, Miami-based Crispin, Porter + Bogusky, abruptly resigned the $30 million account to take on the $400 million Volkswagen assignment. This was no small challenge for McDowell, who had migrated from MINI's sister company, BMW of North America LLC, where he earned industry accolades for developing the groundbreaking BMW film series on the Net. This time, rather than choose an ad agency via the routine process, McDowell decided to upend the entire exercise.
What emerged is an approach that offers valuable lessons for other executives grappling with brand strategy. Companies are challenged more than ever to get their marketing right, and the stakes for finding the right agency are high. Some of the biggest advertisers, such as General Motors (GM), Ford (F), and Coca-Cola (KO), have traced recent woes to failures of brand management and have been courting new agencies to help them rebound. But for all the billions spent on ads, the process by which an agency is selected has seen almost no new thinking until now. McDowell found a way to test not just agencies' marketing flair but also the personal chemistry between agency and client -- the key, experts say, to a successful long-term relationship.
MINI started out following a standard script, up to a point. McDowell's first move was to hire Raleigh (N.C.)-based consultant Hasan Ramusevic, who handles a dozen ad agency searches a year. Ramusevic began with 50 candidates; MINI whittled them down to eight, inviting them to answer long questionnaires and visit headquarters. Of those, four were selected for a rigorous tryout process that would last two months.
The first deviation from the norm came when McDowell organized a "boot camp" for the four finalists: a weekend immersion into all things MINI at a Rye Brook (N.Y.) hotel. There was plenty of face time and driving but the agencies were also required to perform in front of one another as each tried to impress the client-to-be, an unheard-of concept in the notoriously competitive ad world. "You don't expect the client in these situations to be creative...that's what they want us for," says Scott Goodson, president of Strawberry Frog, one of the four contenders.
First, each team had to introduce themselves and create interesting name tags on the spot. The team from New York-based Mother put pictures of their actual mothers on tags. Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners (BSSP) of Sausalito, Calif., in a nod to socially correct recycling and frugality, they riffed, reused plain name tags from a meeting the previous week.
RAINY DAY CAPER
Then each team took turns answering questions that tested improv skills. "If Arnold Schwarzenegger runs for President, who should be his running mate?" went one game question. (Strawberry Frog's team was divided between Sylvester Stallone and Papa Smurf.)
They also were sent out into nasty rainy weather to drive MINI Coopers and go on a kind of scavenger hunt for ideas and props to be used for a scrapbook. The book would tell a MINI story that the agencies and the client would all review over cocktails. Butler Shine's scrapbook centered on a story about a mannequin the team named Darlene, which it snitched from a local electronics store. Darlene and team motored in a MINI to a pumpkin patch, but the caper ended up, for real, with the team being grilled at the local police station. "It was unusual to mix it up with your competitors, but being small and independent, we are all kind of members of the same club," said BSSP Creative Director Michael Shine.
Only one agency quit after boot camp. "Sometimes we don't feel the chemistry," says San Francisco-based Venables, Bell & Partners founder Paul Venables -- something he sensed when driving a MINI especially hard on the wet roads with a tense McDowell in the car. But Venables nonetheless liked the process. "Most pitches boil down to a three-hour presentation where you feel like a trained monkey, and all the stuff you know and have ever learned doesn't matter," he says.
To McDowell, the point was to get closer to how each agency thought, behaved, and went about their business when unexpected situations were thrown at them. All three shops, too, had regular access to the MINI team, via phone, e-mail, and visits. McDowell scrapped a common practice, maddening to agencies, of a company sharing every bit of information requested by one agency with all the contenders to keep the playing field level.
It's not uncommon, says Ramusevic, for relationships between a marketer and a new agency to hit the rocks in less than two years for having failed to bond earlier. So over the two-month-long shootout, says MINI marketing manager Trudy Hardy, the carmaker treated each agency as if it were already working on the brand. The open access helped the ad folks toss around marketing ideas that might have been duds in a final presentation. One of the winning ideas: to open up MINI's online lounge, a popular gathering place for owners, to prospective buyers for a few weeks to help suck them into what McDowell calls the "MINI mindset."
On the final day of boot camp, Butler Shine CEO Greg Stern and his partners showed a film that staffers had created driving a MINI on historic Route 66 and uploaded to the Internet -- but which Stern hadn't previewed before showing it to the MINI team. "I wasn't worried that it wouldn't be good," says Stern. Countered McDowell: "I thought that took nerve."
In the end, McDowell gave the account to Butler. He especially liked its work for Converse sneakers, including a campaign in which Converse enthusiasts, rather than hired hands, created short Internet films, which also ran on TV.
All the good vibes aside, the fruits of the MINI process won't be revealed until the first campaign gets off the ground this spring. Butler Shine has a tough act to follow in Crispin Porter, which in essence fired its client, a rarity in the ad business. Still, even if the new marriage doesn't last, the two parties get credit for helping to reinvent the way companies and ad agencies go a-courtin'.
By David Kiley