FEATURE: Ford’s advertising renaissance

It’s eye-catching, it’s trendy and makes you laugh. It’s Ford? Harriet Green reports on the advertising overhaul that’s taken the brand away from its boring past. But will these ads really work outside Soho?

It’s eye-catching, it’s trendy and makes you laugh. It’s Ford? Harriet

Green reports on the advertising overhaul that’s taken the brand away

from its boring past. But will these ads really work outside Soho?

This autumn, Ogilvy and Mather took a punt. It launched Ford’s cutsey

bubble-motor, the Ka, with a commercial that featured a pair of waggling

feet and a bumble bee - but no car.

There has been talk of a transformation in Ford’s advertising; a greater

sense of style, personality, humanity - even wit. The Ka film provided

proof of it.

Ian McAllister, the chairman of Ford UK, describes Ka as a brand, not a

car. ‘The Ka is different. So the ads had to be different. If we’d shown

the Ka in the ads we’d have been saying this is a launch like any

other,’ he says.

In the past, much Ford work was dreadful. Consider the creaky Escort

films that likened driving to racy sporting activities (the spoiler

looked like a man on skis; turning the steering wheel was like the

action of a hammer thrower). Or the Probe’s launch ad, with zebras

bolting as the car roared across an African landscape.

‘It was hideous,’ Patrick Collister, the executive creative director of

O&M, shudders. ‘There was a massive absence of ideas in almost every


For years, O&M’s top creative teams locked themselves in the loo when a

Ford brief was issued. Clive Yaxley and Jerry Gallaher, the star

creative team, only joined the agency on the grounds that they would

never work on Ford: ‘An appalling indictment of the advertising,’

Collister admits.

And in 1994, Young and Rubicam snatched the launch advertising for the

Ford Galaxy, covering the whole of Europe. It may have looked like a

kick up the bum for O&M, McAllister concedes, who had recently returned

from the US, but it wasn’t meant that way. ‘Sure, O&M knew I’d worked

with other agencies there,’ he says. ‘But we were worried that O&M had

too much on already with us to be able to work on the Galaxy. It was a

logistics thing.’ Whatever - but it wasn’t long after this that Ford

changed its advertising tack.

How had O&M let its most important account slide into blandness? The

Canary Wharf giant handles the biggest car account in the UK, worth many

millions more than most giant fmcg brands. (In all, Ford spends nearly

pounds 80 million a year.) The lacklustre service had done nothing for

O&M’s reputation, as Tom Bury, the managing director of O&M, and

Collister are the first to admit.

Collister says: ‘When I joined O&M in 1993 I realised that we were going

to have to do something about Ford.’

One excuse suggests itself: fear of rejection. McAllister comments: ‘I

said to O&M ‘I believe you think we have a way of doing things that is

inhibiting the way you work with us. Don’t let my people tell you that

we’ve always done things in a certain way.’ We needed to work

differently.’ Unusually, perhaps, for the chairman of a manufacturing

company, McAllister says he gets involved in the advertising all the way

through, from strategy to finished work.

As Collister says: ‘Everyone acknowledged that the work was sub-

standard. But no-one wanted their scripts to be turned down.’

Excuse number two: no co-ordinated strategy. Until two years ago, that

is, when O&M introduced its global ‘brand stewardship’ initiative.

Collister and Bury believe a strategic ‘brand print’ for Ford helped to

turn McAllister, an economist by training, towards a more creative


The first signs of change came in 1994: interesting glossy women’s press

ads for the Fiesta and a soap-opera campaign for the Escort LX. Better

still, the Mondeo ‘Venice’ film, directed by Paul Weiland, in which a

man quits the pedestrian-only city for a drive. That was the first time

Ford used a big-name director rather than what Collister describes as

‘middle of the road’ directors.

But many people weren’t ready for it. ‘If, for years, you position

yourself as a bowler hat,’ Mark Wnek, the executive creative director of

Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper, observes, ‘you can’t just turn around and say

you’re a pair of Levi’s. This guy leaves Venice so he can drive his car,

and guess what? It’s a fucking Ford.’

Since then, O&M has moved the focus: building brands, giving individual

cars a personality and dropping the umbrella tag, ‘Everything we do is

driven by you’.

This summer Escort adopted the line, ‘What do you do in yours?’ Not

exactly revolutionary (it owes something to Cadbury’s Creme Eggs’s line,

‘How do you eat yours?’) but this strategy allows creatives flexibility:

Lily Savage changes her jeans/genes in one ad, Stuart Pearce misses a

penalty in another, and a hospital doctor grabs a moment’s peace from

the mayhem in a third.

The Ford Probe, meanwhile, glided across a futuristic landscape, in a

monochrome homage to the space age, backed by the track, Fly me to the

Moon. More remarkable still, the four wheel-drive Maverick bounced down

a builder’s oesophagus; and there were some funny operatic spots for

Ford dealers. Then the no-car Ka film. ‘Ford is back in the game,’ the

head of a rival agency acknowledges, though a familiar sneer is to hand:

‘But it’s not there yet.’

Well done O&M. But Ford undertook a rethink too. In the past ten years,

the combined market share of Ford, Rover and General Motors has dropped

from 61 per cent to 49 per cent as European, Japanese and Korean

manufacturers copied car styles and sold them more cheaply. Soon, Indian

and Chinese manufacturers will attack the UK too. With this in mind,

Ford introduced a long-term strategy last January. This focused on

brands in a market where everyone’s product has become much like the

others. Internal management was rejigged around products, with roles

such as advertising manager and merchandising and sales promotion

manager dropped in favour of new titles such as Mondeo manager and

Fiesta manager.

In a sense, McAllister says, Ford recommitted itself to the power of

advertising for individual brands. ‘It’s the most fundamental way in

which people perceive brands. Five years ago we had five nameplates

[models]. Next year we’ll have ten. We won’t succeed by trying to get

those brands to appeal to everybody. We used to - that’s why our

advertising was so anodyne.’

Image became king. As Wnek comments: ‘A brand leader can behave in two

ways: arrogantly, or like every day is its last. For at least 15 years,

Ford behaved as if you could stick a picture of the car on telly and

people would buy it.’

Julian Rendell, news editor of Autocar and Motor, agrees: ‘With the

entrance of the Malaysian and Indonesian cars, Ford’s got to make people

think it’s worth spending more on a Ford.’

French and German marques have already established emotional bonds with

drivers - think of Renault, BMW, or Volkswagen. Even Vauxhall, Ford’s

arch-rival, has injected personality into its cars (the ‘supermodels’

campaign for Corsa, the Tom Conti saga for Astra; and, again for Astra,

Tony Kaye’s ‘babies’ film). Ford, meanwhile, wasted years eschewing

people in its ads and worrying instead about whether to show the

dashboard for five seconds or ten.

But in November last year, O&M signalled its serious intentions by

hiring Leon Jaume, the WCRS copywriter, as creative director for Ford.

Chris Rendel, who headed the account at O&M for years before joining

Foote Cone Belding as managing director, was impressed: ‘Persuading him

to take the poisoned chalice was inspirational.’

The client and creative have forged a strong bond. Jaume sees McAllister

as a client who is enthusiastic about advertising and who dares the

agency to push boundaries back. Of Jaume, McAllister says: ‘ I trust and

respect him.’

For the future, Jaume believes the entire creative department should

work on Ford. Previously, a handful of teams created TV launches, print

work, dealership promotions - the lot. Creatives complained that they

were second-class citizens. It’s a testament to the success of the new

order that teams that had worked on Ford for years suddenly produced

interesting work.

Are punters impressed? O&M insists its ads are researched to death, and

believes they work. But it’s too early to tell, and some of the credit

for improved sales might be down to improved products. Either way, Ford

has some way to go. Sales in the UK are actually 2 per cent lower than

this time last year.

All the same, recognition from Soho rivals has started to come through.

The general consensus is that Ford advertising is no longer

embarrassing, and some ads are actually very good. But it’s not BMW or

Volvo yet. As Trevor Beattie, the creative director of TBWA, says: ‘It’s

all a bit disparate and could do with pulling together under one theme.

But for the minute, who cares? Even the bloody dealer ads are superb.

The revolution is being televised.’

And Wnek still sees a problem with credibility: ‘Recent Ford work is a

bit like your dad turning up at a party and getting down on the dance

floor; - admirable in spirit but, in reality, slightly embarrassing. It

seems to have no strategic discipline.’

Jaume hits back: ‘I would rather be a few steps ahead of the brand image

than a few steps behind. It’s like British Airways. The advertising

leapt ahead of the brand and pulled the product up with it. I see no

reason why, eventually, ours can’t be the best car advertising around.’

Dominic Mills talks to Ian McAllister about Ford’s new direction

Q Ford advertising was very bland. Now it has changed a lot. Why?

A It comes down to creativity and starting afresh. A lot of car

advertising is very predictable. It’s feature-driven, car-on-the-road

stuff. But there’s an explosion of media choice. Consumers are now very

selective about what they watch, therefore you have to make the

advertising interesting and, in a commodity market such as cars, you

have to focus on the brand.

Q Are the changes down to you or O&M?

A Both. We’re not creatives. We have to trust the people we hire to do

that. The problem was that the agency thought it knew what we wanted and

was trying to produce that. I said it must have the courage to produce

work that I personally might not like.

Q What happens then?

A We’ll run them - if they’re on strategy. Once we have the strategy

box agreed, I want O&M to be as creative as it can be. Getting the

strategic box right is crucial. If they research well, they run. I said

to O&M: ‘Don’t ever think you’ll get fired for upsetting me.’ We have to

be different.

Q Even if that means making a mistake?

A Even if we make a mistake, but the point is that by working hard on

the strategic box your chances of getting it right first time are


Q Your ads used to be deadly serious but there’s humour now. Why?

A You’ve got to have the courage not to take yourself too seriously in

your advertising. The Escort ads have a very human face - the surfer

and his wet-suit, Lily Savage. Consumers are more likely to buy from

you if you show that you’re human.

Q Would you like Ford advertising to win awards?

A Oh yes. We’d have a big party with O&M if we did. We’d buy lots of


Q What about an effectiveness award? Would you stop an agency entering?

A No. They can enter anything they like.


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