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,’
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
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
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
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
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.