Tuesday, September 1

Rethinking Volkswagen: Five Agencies

There seems to be a bit of buzz about Volkswagen shopping five new agencies to helm a campaign backed by a $220 million media buy that Volkswagen represents. And some even seem to lament that Crispin Porter + Bogusky declined to defend it.

Don't lament. The decision comes after 2008 realized a 14 percent decline in sales from 2007. While some might blame a tough year for automakers, the real unraveling came after one of the biggest branding mistakes ever made.

"Max," the German-accented black Beetle that Crispin chose to represent the brand, clearly missed the mark. And while some people still argue that the Crispin work was rarely ignored, it's easy enough to make the case that Volkswagen would have been lucky had some of the work been ignored. With exception to the "Safety Happens" campaign years ago, Crispin spent years dismantling the sophisticated cool creative delivered by Arnold years ago. Ads so powerful they helped people rediscover Nick Drake as much as the Cabrio.

Any new agency pitching with the hope to return Volkswagen to the second age of great creative might reflect on the work Arnold laid down before Crispin walked couples on the lot of a Volkswagen dealership to prevent her from "birthing children for German engineering." What was missing through most of the campaigns is what Arnold taught us about Volkswagen and Ogilvy & Mather before that — the brand relationship between the drivers and the cars was passionate and the advertising worked best when it celebrated that passion with the sweet spot always found between overtly forced and mainstream.

It was also the concept we carried forward with The Idea Factory in Las Vegas when Findlay Volkswagen wanted to open against a 20-year plus Volkswagen dealership that had gone so mainstream it employed John Elway as a spokesperson with price points. In contrast, we focused on the passion between the drivers and the cars, giving some personalities like Crispin did, but without the cornball gimmick of a German accent and a company spokesperson.

Instead, we told stories about drivers who became jealous when people admired their "girl," a man confessing he coveted a Beetle owned by the priest he was confessing to, or a car calling its owner to "sneak out" for a ride while his wife was sleeping. Arnold always approved the ads with reimbursement for full production because they married well with the national campaigns.

At the end of four months, Findlay Volkswagen ranked first in the state and fourth in the region. It continued to set new records every quarter until the agency's account executive jumped ship and took the account with him. His intent was to make the dealer more mainstream too, and he overshot with ads featuring singing kids that failed to reach the audience. The dealership has never seen the same success for the same reason the Crispin ads didn't connect, except in the opposite direction.

Volkswagen is anything but mainstream, but the consumers who buy them aren't shock advertising savvy either. They're smart people who appreciate the brand distinction without the price.


Krystal on 9/2/09, 6:16 AM said...

What a surprise to se that creative again in my inbox! I agree with you. Our work on that was GOOD and it was true to Volkswagen's brand.

You know that the big blonde frankenstein AE you mention saw these paper rip ads on my cutting board and tried to peel off the newspaper until I told him (while trying heroically not to laugh) that it was all photoshop and not a piece of newsprint that he could go show Jan. TRUE!

Rich on 9/2/09, 6:41 AM said...


I'm so glad I was able to share this memory with you. And thank you for a visual that will stay with me for years to come. It's hilarious.

There were many of those moments in house, I'm sure. I parted company with the AE after he transposed a spokesperson backstory onto a bobble head that doesn't bobble for someone else. There is only so much shtick the world can bare



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