Until December, 2000 was a banner year for Linda Wolf.
In June, while working as Leo Burnett Co.'s CEO of U.S. operations, Wolf's unit won the U.S. Army's $95 million advertising account. She celebrated by parachuting from an airplane.
Then the agency added the $139 million U.S. Postal Service account. The Army and Postal Service were among 13 new U.S. clients that brought $600 million in new billings to the agency for the year.
In September, Wolf was named CEO of Leo Burnett Worldwide, effective Jan. 1.
Three weeks before she stepped into that job, however, the year 2000 lost its glow: GM announced Dec. 12 that General Motors was dissolving Oldsmobile. The division had been a Leo Burnett mainstay since 1967.
Overnight, Leo Burnett's focus shifted. Its mission had been to rebuild Oldsmobile. Now, over the next several years, Leo Burnett will help General Motors kill it.
'We've been passionate about the brand,' Wolf says. 'We've put a lot into it, and we're proud of the work we've done.'
Oldsmobile brought the agency an estimated $300 million in billings in 1999. More than 60 agency employees were committed solely to the account. As the Oldsmobile activity shrinks, those employees will be reassigned to other Leo Burnett business.
'We are still the agency, and we're putting the plans into development for the next year or two,' said Wolf. 'That's our priority right now.'
Changing the message
In the meantime, the agency will shift into damage control as GM hangs Oldsmobiles on the clearance rack.
The effort has been kicked off with a campaign that touts $1,500 vouchers for current owners and a new five-year/60,000-mile warranty. The ads replace Oldsmobile's former strategy, which focused on features.
One newspaper ad touting the warranty, for example, featured a picture of the five-vehicle Olds lineup underscored by a tag that reads, 'Oldsmobile: The smart buyer's choice.'
True, Oldsmobile's sales have declined dramatically in the last 15 years. And, yes, the positioning of the brand has turned 180 degrees. Still, the ads insist that 'smart car buyers have been dedicated Oldsmobile buyers for years.'
The ads represent a notable break from the 'Not your father's Oldsmobile' effort that began in 1988 and has remained the backbone of the company's advertising. Now it's wise, not necessarily hip, to drive an Olds. Welcome back to your father's Oldsmobile.
Not according to plan
The agency was hardly ready for the task.
Under the leadership of Nina Abnee, executive vice president of advertising and director of the Oldsmobile account, Leo Burnett had been plotting its next move in a long-term repositioning of the brand.
Abnee says the agency had gained approval to begin shooting commercials scheduled to debut in mid-February. They would present the individual vehicles - the Intrigue, Alero, Aurora, Bravada and Silhouette - under the umbrella of the entire brand. The previous strategy had been to stress nameplates such as the Aurora instead of Oldsmobile itself.
When the decision to kill Oldsmobile was announced, Leo Burnett was pitted in a two-month review against McCann-Erickson Worlwide for Oldsmobile's business.
'We were totally surprised' by the move to kill Olds, Abnee says. 'The move to marketing the entire brand made sense.' And the review, which has since been called off, gave Leo Burnett the chance to prove it, she says.
While no one at Leo Burnett is pointing fingers, no one at the agency is buying the argument that advertising should be blamed for Oldsmobile's demise.
'Marketing is not the only factor,' Abnee says. 'The auto industry is so much more complicated.'
Abnee insists that the agency's efforts were consistently recognized and commended by Oldsmobile. It had been long understood that turning a brand around was going to take time.
'Evidently,' she says, 'the momentum was not happening fast enough.'