'Mad Men' pep talk and the power of automakers and their ad agencies

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DETROIT -- "Every agency on Madison Avenue is defined by the moment they got their car. When we land Jaguar, the world will know we have arrived."

That’s the pep talk Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s Don Draper gives his staff during the May 20 episode of AMC’s "Mad Men."

It’s rare to find truth in fiction, but there’s no denying that winning or losing the account of a major automaker is a big deal for any ad agency.

For one thing, creatively marketing a car is plain fun. That’s because cars are sexy, many advertising executives say.

Indeed. In the episode, Draper takes his voluptuous colleague, Joan, for a test drive in a Jaguar E-Type coupe. The car and the couple are practically sex on wheels.

It’s also financially lucrative and instant cachet to win the business of an automaker.

Take ad agency Doner. Doner didn’t have a strong identity until it won the Mazda account in the late 1990s, says one veteran Detroit advertising executive. Doner came up with the "Zoom Zoom" tag line.

In a June 2010 Advertising Age article announcing that Mazda was cutting Doner from its ongoing agency review, the author, Jeremy Mullman, reflected on the importance of Doner having won Mazda in the first place:

“Winning Mazda in 1997 in a pitch that also included GSD&M and Ogilvy & Mather was the exclamation point on the independent's transformation from a strong, regional independent into a national force. It also greatly increased the agency's footprint, as Doner opened an Irvine, Calif., branch to work on Mazda.”

Likewise, when ad agency Campbell-Ewald lost the Chevrolet account in early 2010 -- after a 91-year relationship -- it lost much of its identity.

"Campbell-Ewald had Chevrolet and the pride was in the fact that it was the biggest automobile account in the world," the executive says. "To lose it was devastating. They still hope to get it back because they lost their identity."

The pressure to win the pitch to an automaker is enormous.

That’s reflected when "Mad Men's" Don Draper warns his staff to prepare to work day and night, including the holidays, to win the British automaker’s business.

Whether "Mad Men's" Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce wins the account remains to be seen. But if an ad agency gets that shot to market for an automaker and does it well, it’s the agency’s work that then gives the automaker prestige and identity.

“It’s more difficult work than people think, but it’s so prestigious,” the veteran executive says. “If you can do it well, like Wieden+Kennedy has done by putting Chrysler on the map, then it’s brilliant.”

You can reach Jamie LaReau at jlareau@crain.com. -- Follow Jamie on Twitter

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