There’s more than an irony to the fact that Volkswagen Group, a company that cheated on an industrial scale and then attempted to cover up its emissions scandal, is now punishing the agencies that made its brands in the first place and remained loyal to it when it was mired in a mess of its own making.
With VW Group putting the advertising for Audi up for pitch, putting Bartle Bogle Hegarty – without whom the brand would mean nothing in this market – on alert, it also shows how depressingly supine marketing has become.
BBH has consistently produced advertising for Audi that not just beats its category but beats every category, ever since in one of his many flashes of genius co-founder Sir John Hegarty coined the slogan "Vorsprung durch technik". In October 2018, BBH won the IPA Effectiveness Grand Prix for transforming Audi's UK business and delivering its highest-ever return on marketing investment – it delivered an estimated £1.78bn of incremental value during 2015-2017.
In 2015, VW Group admitted to cheating emissions tests in the US with the use of a "defeat device" in diesel engines that could detect when cars were being tested, changing the performance accordingly to improve results. The company admitted that 11 million cars worldwide – including eight million in Europe – were fitted with this software, including the Audi A3. VW Group claimed that since European Union rules are more lenient than in the US, the device was not needed, so it broke no laws here. So that’s alright, then.
The scandal, which went to the very top of VW Group, has cost the company an estimated £22bn. It said that one of its first priorities was to "rebuild trust" with the public. But in an attempt to make up for this financial shortfall, it has put first its global ad account for VW up for pitch and now the UK Audi account in a process led by its procurement department, which now seems to have supremacy. In a rare show of unity, the move has prompted disbelief from BBH’s rivals – a Twitter storm of the best variety – and quite right too. It’s impossible to imagine any other agency producing work of the enduring quality that BBH has, so it’s almost unimaginable that the account would move.
But if procurement has its way and the business moves to the cheapest offer, VW Group will not only be throwing away nearly four decades of advertising excellence in an attempt to recoup money that it lost from being found out for being cheats, it will also reveal that the company has learned nothing from the experience.
Jeremy Lee is contributing editor at Campaign