CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/SONY - Sony Europe seeks coherent creative product from Fallon

Sony's pitchlist showed the company's desire for better creative, Jenny Watts writes.

Most people's cupboards include at least one Sony product. The brand name carries with it a certain heritage and creative prestige that points effortlessly to market leadership. But in recent years, for a brand with such heritage, its advertising never seemed to live up to its potential.

So with last week's news that Sony Europe has appointed Fallon, widely recognised for its strong creative credentials, to its £70 million pan-European consumer electronics division, comes the unwritten sub-text that Sony wants its brand's advertising tide to turn.

But where did it go wrong for Saatchi & Saatchi, the three-year incumbent that coined the strapline "Go create", which sources say was no longer working?

Despite the multinational structure the agency offered, insiders say this huge infrastructure was not necessary and that Saatchis was no longer cutting the mustard creatively. "There were network problems and creative issues with Saatchis," one source says. "The pitch was about Sony Europe wanting creative depth."

It was clear from the start that Sony was looking for a creative-led solution; you've only got to look at the pitching agencies to see that.

Wieden & Kennedy, Bartle Bogle Hegarty, Fallon and Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO are creative agencies without a network to drag down their creative aptitude. The pitch was held at the Sony centre in Berlin and was led by Barbara Haase and Tim Kaner (who used to work at BMP DDB before he went client-side).

The agencies' hunger for such a prestigious prize, especially in such lean times, was clear. And despite the fierce confidentiality agreements, news of the pitch emerged quickly. But the biggest surprise for most was the appearance of the wild card, the little-known outfit Rapley Smith & Jones. Formed earlier in the year, the agency, which champions the use of account management and strategists to work with creative independents, initially seemed to sit uncomfortably alongside the bigger players.

But the co-founder Mark Rapley knew Kaner from his days on Sony at BMP, and apparently acted immediately, employing the creative services of the former Leagas Delaney team Ian Ducker and Will Farquhar to successfully muscle on to the list a fortnight later.

When W&K and AMV were knocked out after the first round, expectation of a quick second round was shelved by an unexplained delay, reputedly caused by RS&J catching up. The other agencies remained unaware of the new competitor, whose strategy idea apparently required a degree of animation and the services of a production company, thereby causing the hold up.

Some skeptics were unsure of the presence of this wild card, but another counters that it fitted with Kaner's idea of how the account should be serviced. "The intention he's always had is to run the advertising in a more centralised way," one says, adding that the idea of appointing an agency without a network was therefore not such an issue for him. "Tim believes Sony is a highly technological company. If they can't deliver things internationally using technology, then who can?"

After a final shoot-out with BBH, Fallon emerged as the winner. With the appointment, Kaner has sent clear signals that he is looking to find a more modern, technologically driven and premium creative network.

And he will need this to face the dilemma the company has ahead. Back in 1995, Sony Europe introduced Audio Video and Information Technology convergence. Since then, however, the company has changed its positioning.

As the line between work tools and play toys begins to blur, Sony, which traditionally occupies the luxurious territory of brand leader in each market, needs to respond, with sources saying the pitch brief was to take the brand forward from this point.

Its dilemma now is that the consumer electronics market is split into two. Consequently, Sony has its traditional - and often cheaper - competitors in the market such as Samsung and Philips, but is now also competing against companies that make networked products, such as Apple and Motorola, with which it hasn't historically competed. And as a high-end brand looking to the future, Sony needs to be at the forefront of both.

The idea is to get consumers using Sony generically inside the home, rather than just one individual product. Over the past year, Saatchis had been attempting to create a brand unity by using Aibo, the electronic dog, as a convenient, non-controversial emblem allowing all the different advertising to hang together in Sony ads. However, now Sony needs to work out where it goes from this point. Aldo Liguori, Sony Europe's director of corporate communications, says: "'Go create' was about connecting our products together to create a solution that best suits our users' needs.

Going forward, we don't know. We will still be positioning ourselves in a broadband era. But how we communicate an advance direction next year is being reviewed and discussed. And I've no idea about changing the strapline."

Although Liguori says Sony isn't ready to divulge any further details at the moment, he concludes that it has to review its positioning. "We are looking at where we need to go forward; is AVIT and connectivity still important going forward - if so, how?" he says.

Sony's task now with Fallon is to crack this issue of product connectivity.

However, its various business divisions within consumer electronics, such as in-car stereos and walkmans, all operate as separate businesses and the danger it faces now is appearing schizophrenic by trying to encapsulate so many markets.

Fallon will need to find an advertising platform to curb this. One source concludes: "Tim and Fallon need to produce an idea that glues lots of product ads together, so you get a feeling of what Sony is like generally." Or the king of consumer electronics is in danger of losing its crown.

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