How do you make a marriage work?
Keep around a good marriage counselor.
Ford Division and J. Walter Thompson Co. this year celebrate their 60th anniversary - making theirs the oldest U.S. automaker-advertising agency relationship. Like any marriage, there have been good times and bad.
"One of my most important roles was to maintain our relationship with Ford," said Burt Manning, 71, now chairman emeritus of J. Walter. "I was the designated fireman regardless of whatever title I had."
And he had many titles. Manning joined J. Walter Thompson in 1967 as a copy writer in Chicago. He began working on the Ford business in 1972 as creative director in New York and became head of the agency's U.S. business in 1980. In 1986 he left for 11 months to run his own agency but was wooed back to run J. Walter Thompson as chairman and CEO. Manning gave up his CEO title in 1997.
"It's inevitable in any long-term relationship: There are going to be some problems," he said. "And often, when new people come into the client side, they want to do something different, they need a broom, they need to change agencies. What the agency tries to do is reconfirm the importance of the relationship, and give them evidence we're capable of providing new thinking and new work."
JWT signs JWT
Ford signed up J. (it stands for James) Walter Thompson on Dec. 7, 1943, after dropping ad agency McCann-Erickson Inc. Another J.W. Thompson - John W. Thompson, who worked in Ford purchasing - signed the letter of agreement.
But the first three years on the account had nothing to do with selling cars.
"All auto companies were in the process of building war materiel at the time," said Peter Schweitzer, J. Walter Thompson's current CEO. "The first campaign was done in 1945: 'There's a Ford in your future,' meaning wait a little while and we'll be back in production on Ford vehicles."
J. Walter Thompson handled these key campaigns for Ford vehicle launches:
n The 1949 Ford
n The first F-series designation in 1953
n The Thunderbird in 1954
n The Mustang in 1965
n The Taurus in 1985
n The Explorer in 1990.
What is Ford's most famous ad tag line?
"Most people would say, 'Have you driven a Ford lately?' " said Jim O'Connor, Ford Motor Co.'s group vice president for North America marketing, sales and service.
The line ran from 1983 to 1994. So with such equity, why change it?
"You have to balance the desire for consistency with keeping the message fresh," said O'Connor, who joined Ford in 1964 and has held various sales and marketing positions with the company, including four years as president of Ford Division.
"You monitor what consumers are telling you through research. There's the timing of new product launches, consumer awareness of the message, competitive response."
The agency is always under review by Ford Division, said Schweitzer, who has been with J. Walter since 1975. He has worked in the Detroit office since January 1996, where the Ford account has been serviced since about 1980 to respond faster to the needs of Ford's nearby Dearborn headquarters.
Henry II wanted a change
"One time Henry Ford II wanted management to fire us, but they wouldn't," Schweitzer said. "This is anecdotal, because I wasn't there, but they said: 'Look, they're the best agency. Give us time and we'll fix it.' There hasn't been anything significant since I've been here, but on occasion, there are people issues. We handle them and get on with the job."
The right people are key, O'Connor said.
"It's always people, people, people," he said. "When you buy an agency, you buy the people. This is an idea, creative business. How do you communicate toughness? How do you communicate safety, drive and dynamics, flexible seating, entertainment systems,
the couple, three points we're trying to get across?"
Ford's relationship with J. Walter Thompson has not changed much over the years, he said.
"I think of J. Walter as an extension of the (Ford) marketing department to help us strategically," said O'Connor, 60.
But the agency's compensation changed in 1999, from a commission to a flat fee, plus a performance bonus.
J. Walter was at about 11 percent commission before the new pay structure. Ford Division spent $542.4 million in 2002 on U.S. measured media, according to Competitive Media Reporting in New York.
Ups and downs
"We share the victories and the losses," Schweitzer said. "When Ford's having problems, we're in there with them. Recently, the Firestone incident put a lot of strain on Ford and our relationship. We were trying to come up with the best solution from a business standpoint."
Many of "fireman" Manning's rescues took place in the 1970s and 1980s in Europe.
"The United States of course is an enormously important business, but Ford was understanding it had to think about the other markets in their own terms," Manning said. "The agency was having troubles with the Ford account. I was a creative guy, and it kind of devolved on the creative work."
So he was sent to Europe to turn things around. And it worked for a while, but a fireman can't save every day. J. Walter Thompson ultimately lost Ford's European business to Ogilvy & Mather Inc.
The U.S. account always has included Ford's dealers. But J. Walter Thompson has won and lost many of them repeatedly because the agency must answer to each dealer advertising group.
"In the '70s, when the (automotive) industry was in turmoil, a lot of people left Thompson, and they took a lot of the dealer business with them," Schweitzer said. "We've spent a long time clawing back."
J. Walter now has about 85 percent of the dealers.