Close-Up: Live Issue - Continuously building the BMW brand for 25 years

The enduring relationship means WCRS can get inside the brand. Despite celebrating their 25-year anniversary together this week, WCRS's relationship with its founding client, BMW, did not get off to the most auspicious of starts.

The agency enlisted the services of the celebrated Hollywood actor Kirk Douglas for a TV spot that looks painfully dated by today's standards and brings together the worst of the aspirational excesses of the 80s.

The spot showed Douglas cruising about in his BMW with a brunette. He manages to evade the phone calls of a persistent female who is attempting to track him down at some of his favourite haunts, such as his tailor and an expensive restaurant. The commercial bombed.

It was a painful mistake for the fledgling agency to make, but one that the length of this endurinng relationship has subsequently vindicated, according to Robin Wight, the chairman of WCRS.

The reason the first ad was such a flop, he says, was because it tried to impose the image of a celebrity on BMW. After that, WCRS immediately adopted a simpler and more straightforward approach, concentrating on the virtues of the car rather than the values associated with someone who would drive one, and it has stuck rigidly to this strategy ever since.

For example, the latest campaign for the BMW 1 Series, which includes press, TV and online activity as well as events and PR, aims to attract a new, younger audience to the BMW marque without losing its credentials as an upmarket, luxury brand.

It is a fine example of the kind of advertising WCRS has used successfully over the past 25 years to build the BMW brand in the UK. The TV spot highlights specific aspects of the 1 Series by contrasting them metaphorically with living things that are weak in those areas.

In one shot, a graphic image of an unstable foal contrasts with the stability of the car. In the next, a slow tortoise highlights the car's responsiveness.

The third image is of a young girl riding a tricycle, to reflect the inferiority of front-wheel drive cars compared with the BMW's rear-wheel drive.

Although the production quality of this latest campaign is superior to that of some of the agency's earlier work (for example, "doors", the 1990 ad that promoted the durability of the 3 Series by suspending the car from its doors), the objective of the commercials has also been constant.

In 1999, WCRS used a series of commercials to champion BMW's advanced technology. One featured umbrellas raining down from the sky as an analogy for the car's aerodynamics. Another campaign, for the 7 Series, used an image of a large modern sculpture to emphasise its design.

But perhaps the most memorable ad of the body of work is "shaken not stirred", a press ad that ran in 1984, featuring two martini glasses - one resting on the bonnet of a six-cylinder BMW, another on the front of a four-cylinder Mercedes. Needless to say, the martini on the BMW remains undisturbed, in contrast with the drink on the Mercedes, which is visibly shaken.

The development by WCRS of a unique style of advertising begs for comparisons to be drawn with Audi, which has used Bartle Bogle Hegarty for the past 22 years and is another agency-founding client. After all, both marques are German, both are in the luxury sector and are aspirational brands, and both accounts are closely guarded by their respective agencies because of their emotional attachment to them as the first clients on the books.

They also adopt similar strategies, Simon Sherwood, BBH's worldwide chief operating officer, says. "There is an ability to deliver great work because their spend is high and their image relies heavily on advertising," he explains.

He also believes that the reason why brands such as BMW, Audi and even Volkswagen - at DDB for 40 years - have enjoyed successful advertising is because the amount of information the agencies have been able digest over the years has got them to the heart of the brands' propositions.

Wight agrees that understanding the brand has been the making of WCRS's relationship with BMW, as the agency's philosophy has always been to "interrogate a product until it confesses its strengths". And key to the whole relationship is the extent to which everybody understands the brand, from the dealerships up to the top level of management, according to Wight.

To demonstrate this point, he recounts a tale of how the agency ran a brand workshop for BMW dealerships.

At the end of the session, the dealers were shown a new WCRS ad that featured an animated BMW radiator nozzle snorting pollution. One of the dealer delegates stood up and said that it "was not a BMW ad".

Wight admits this was not one of the best ads the agency had produced for the car, but says that this incident illustrated the relationship between the client and the agency. "We got to a point where even BMW dealers were actually brand policemen," he explains.

"When you get this powerful continuity you get to a situation where we all know that the brand is understood. One of the differences between the UK and other markets is that BMW understood that we needed to lead with selling the brand," he adds.

Wight says one of the high points of WCRS's relationship with BMW came last year when the marque celebrated one million sales in the UK.

In the 25 years since WCRS took on the account, annual sales of the brand have grown from a paltry 14,000 back in 1979 to over 93,000 in the UK, a figure that will be boosted by the introduction of the 1 Series hatchback.

The UK is BMW's third-largest market, after the US and Germany, with a market share of 3.65 per cent in 2003.

While these figures look impressive, one criticism, though, is that few people can recall a single BMW ad because they are all so similar. This may be a result of the way that the agency briefs its creative teams.

"New creatives were set a brief to design a BMW toilet," Rooney Carruthers, who was the creative director at WCRS from 1993 to 2001, says. "They would be told 'if you were to design a BMW toilet, what would it look like?'"

But Kevin Stark, a former creative director on the BMW account and now a creative director at BBH, says this homogeneity is deliberate. "Very few ads stand out but you get a sense of the whole," he says.

After 25 years, the relationship between the agency and the client still looks solid. Much of its success can be attributed to Wight's commitment to keeping a consistent advertising strategy (he is himself a Series 6 BMW convertible driver) and the rest to the steep lesson he learned in 1980 when the agency almost lost the account.

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