Infiniti seeks 'influencers' as part of ad account review

Witherspoon: "We're looking for a global solution."
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Advertising executives working on automotive accounts like to speculate how they'd build an automotive brand from scratch. And this summer's opportunity to virtually re-launch Infiniti is about as close as they're going to get, said Allyson Witherspoon, Infiniti USA's director of marketing, communications and media.

She joined the luxury car maker's U.S. operations, based in Nashville, in November after stints at Arnold Amsterdam in the Netherlands and other ad agencies.

"If I were to put my former agency hat on, I would probably salivate.... You're always trying to look at what are brands that you can help build, or rebuild, or help evolve. I think [Infiniti] is that," Wittherspoon said in an interview at the New York auto show.

But ad agencies chasing the global Infiniti account, which has been held for a long time by Omnicom Group's TBWA Worldwide, will have their work cut out for them.

Infiniti Motor Co. will celebrate its 25th anniversary in the United States this November. But many consumers still view Infiniti cars and SUV's more like the mass-market models sold by sibling company Nissan than luxury vehicles from industry leaders Mercedes-Benz and BMW.

Even among Japanese luxury brands, Infiniti languishes behind Toyota Motor Corp.'s Lexus, which also debuted in 1989 and Honda Motor Co.'s Acura brand, which launched in 1986. Out of the three, Lexus has been the most successful, holding the nation's luxury sales crown from 2000 to 2010 before dropping behind Mercedes and BMW.

With 31,221 vehicles sold during the first three months of 2014, Infiniti ranked a distant No. 7 in luxury sales, according to the Automotive News Data Center.

During 2013, Infiniti sold 116,445 vehicles. That placed Infiniti No. 8 behind Mercedes-Benz (313,528), BMW (309,280), Lexus (273,847), General Motors' Cadillac (182,543), Acura (165,436) and Volkswagen's fast-rising Audi (158,061). Infiniti's U.S. sales peaked in 2005 with 136,401 vehicles sold.

Infiniti has been trying to distance itself from its "Nissan-Plus" reputation by establishing a new headquarters in Hong Kong to become separate from Nissan Motor and throwing its global ad account up for grabs.

A look at five key things about the Infiniti ad account review:

1. Is the pitch still open?

Maybe. Infiniti has hired search consultant Roth Observatory. But the client hasn't met with agencies yet or drawn up a contenders list, Witherspoon said. While Infiniti is still at the "very beginning" of the process, it expects to pick a single global agency by the end of summer.

When asked how many packages she's received from interested shops, Witherspoon replied: "A lot. And I still continue to get them."

2. Who are the key decision makers?

The review is being led by Vincent Gillet, Infiniti Motor Co.'s Hong Kong-based vice president of marketing. Witherspoon is part of the "core" team running the review. She reports to Michael Bartsch, the former Porsche executive who was named vice president of Infiniti Americas in August.

"It's going to be a global pitch. So we're looking for a global solution," Witherspoon said. "The U.S. is over 70% of total global sales -- so we're obviously looking for what is the right U.S. solution as well."

3. What does the client want?

Forget about Japanese competitors. Infiniti wants to conquest customers who buy European luxury cars. "Our aspirations are to be a Tier One luxury brand. That's to be with the likes of BMW, Audi and Mercedes," said Witherspoon.

4. Is another Jonathan Pryce-like campaign in the cards?

The former Chiat/Day created Infiniti's most famous ad campaign, a series of TV commercials starring actor Jonathan Pryce that aired in the early 1990's. So is Infiniti in the market for another celebrity spokesperson? Yes, said Witherspoon.

The automaker is looking for pop culture "influencers" to possibly endorse the brand. These influencers could be either entertainers or athletes. But finding another celebrity spokesperson is not technically part of the review.

"There's an element of pop culture. We want to be sure we introduce ourselves and establish ourselves in a very relevant way," Witherspoon said. "Who are the right people to do that? That's what we're evaluating."

5. Is TBWA invited to the review?

Yes. TBWA serves as Infiniti's sole agency around the world. It will defend the business, according to spokeswoman Marianne Stefanowicz.


You can reach Michael McCarthy at mmcarthy@adage.com.


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