CLOSE-UP: NEWSMAKER - SIMON THOMPSON. Honda's man pits his brand against the very best

New Accord ad reveals the vision of Simon Thompson. Mark Sweney investigates.

Simon Thompson, Honda's marketing director, has a habit of intimidating people. It isn't something he does intentionally. It's just that he is very direct, a straight-shooter who knows what he wants from his agencies.

It is this approach, born of having complete confidence in his vision of how Honda should be advertised, that not only scares people, but has resulted in "cog", a stunning two-minute spot breaking this Sunday, designed to showcase the Accord's quality and creativity.

"Initially, people are scared of him because he is very direct in a cut-through-the-nonsense kind of way. But once you start working with him he is very personable and easy to get on with," Jonathan Campbell, the group account director at Honda's agency, Wieden & Kennedy London, says.

"He is very much a product of Honda and, like the company, he is quite maverick and dynamic. He acts intuitively and on his instincts but is always rational."

He may be very much the company man now, having spent more than a decade at Honda, but Thompson started his career in the computer industry. With both his parents in the car industry, he naturally gravitated to what he calls "the family business", however. "I decided I should do something I love rather than just something I'm good at. Now, hopefully, I'm good at what I love," he says.

Thompson has worked in a range of roles at Honda, at UK, European and global level, across its three divisions - cars, motorcycles and power equipment.

Within the company, Thompson has a reputation as a trouble-shooter, a term he is uncomfortable with but concedes is correct. It was what took him into marketing.

"I have been fortunate that the company has allowed me to change management roles. I am used as a change-agent," he says.

It was his experience across Honda, his ability to see it as one brand and not just a range of products, that inspired Ken Keir, Honda UK's managing director, to task Thompson with overhauling Honda's brand image back in 1999.

So while Chris Brown, the man who Thompson has now succeeded as head of marketing, was in the spotlight reviewing, and ultimately dropping, its ad agency CDP, Thompson was behind the scenes plotting the new incarnation of Honda.

"I started branding work around four years ago to try to define a strategy based on Honda's internal culture. In the market, Honda was seen as rather dull, but inside we are creative and inspirational. Internally, there are six core values - imaginative, human, inquisitive, passionate, plain-speaking and optimistic."

To be fair, it wasn't the performance of CDP's advertising that sparked the review. It was, in fact, doing rather well for Honda. According to Mintel, between 1996 and 2001, the year the account moved to Wieden & Kennedy, Honda's share of the new car market increased by 26 per cent.

The root of the problem was that Honda's strategy had been a somewhat schizophrenic mix of brand and product advertising.

The new advertising for the Accord, Thompson's first major campaign since taking hold of the reins from Brown last year, exemplifies the brand-centric approach and shows his willingness to continue pushing the creative boundary.

"Cog" shows an intricate chain-reaction involving 85 car parts that eventually results in the Honda Accord rolling down a platform.

The ad (which took 606 takes to make) is a refreshing and brave break from traditional car advertising. It also proves that Thompson has the courage of his convictions. He says: "We want to show it is a superbly engineered quality car. It shows the passion and obsession that the engineers have put into each part."

Thompson has set himself the tall order of pushing the public perception of the Honda brand to the same level as Jaguar or BMW.

"We wanted a big step-change and that included partners. CDP did good car advertising. Wieden & Kennedy do good advertising that would be inspirational in any sector. The issue is our engineering is Volvo or Saab, yet we are selling a brand level lower, at the mass-market range of, say, Ford. It was a perception problem."

He compares his working style to the sporty Honda S2000 roadster that he drives. He likes to operate at speed, but always with an eye on performance.

"He is fast thinking and fast talking and he knows that you have to throw an idea up in the air," Simon Summerscales, a strategist at Naked, which handles Honda's media strategy, says. "He fires off loads of questions, but gives us space and doesn't cramp our style."

So far Wieden & Kennedy's advertising has performed well. According to Thompson, in 2002 the entire car market showed growth of 4.2 per cent yet Honda was the fastest growing manufacturer with a 22.8 per cent boost in sales. And he claims a three-fold increase in brand awareness that coincides with the introduction of "the power of dreams" campaign a year ago.

Despite this success, Crispin Reed, who headed CDP's Honda account from 1999 to 2000, points out that Thompson still has a major task ahead because of the incredibly competitive nature of the car market. He says: "Renault has improved and become very successful as well and raised the advertising bar, so Simon knows he will have to keep moving forward with avant-garde advertising."

It is a fact Thompson is well aware of and he has big ambitions for the future. "We are nine months into a four-year programme. I would love to be able to sit down in ten years' time and see Honda as an iconic brand - edgy, trendy, youthful."

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