OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

Decades ago, J. Walter Thompson proclaimed "There's a Ford in your future!" in a slogan deemed one of Madison Avenue's finest because it took lemons (the shortage of cars during and just after World War II) and made lemonade (anticipating the return to the romance of the open road).

Today, the slogan is being rewritten, as they say on the American quiz show Jeopardy, in the form of a question: "Is there a Ford in WPP's future?"

On the face of it, that query seems absurd. How could the relationship between the Ford Motor Company and the WPP Group, whose agencies now handle roughly 80 per cent of Ford's worldwide ad budget, be rent asunder? All three WPP global networks - JWT, Ogilvy & Mather and Young & Rubicam - work for Ford, in each instance for years before WPP was a gleam in Sir Martin Sorrell's eye. In fact, Ford is WPP's biggest client, accounting for 7 per cent of its $6.3 billion in revenues.

Besides, even if Ford wanted to leave WPP, where would or could it go?

General Motors parks much of its business at Interpublic Group agencies, while DaimlerChrysler calls the Omnicom Group home. Havas? Publicis? Dentsu?

Cordiant? Get real.

But the state of the union between Ford and WPP suddenly was called into question on 10 March, when a Detroit newspaper reported that orders to further consolidate the automaker's accounts at WPP shops, promulgated by Nicholas V Scheele, the president and chief operating officer, were under scrutiny internally. So too, for that matter, was Scheele, a former CEO of Ford of Europe brought to world headquarters to lead Ford's crucial but troubled North American operations.

Never mind that the plans, intended to spur cost-cutting through consolidation, had been publicised widely and for a while. Forget all the business WPP handles for Ford. Put aside the fact that WPP agreed to offer better rates if competition for some assignments was closed to non-WPP agencies. No, executives from the Ford purchasing and - get this - human resources divisions demanded a probe to determine if Scheele's designation of WPP as "sole source" for advertising violated policies intended to ... cut costs.

Worse yet, the case against Scheele was made with some mudslinging over personal matters: he and Sir Martin are friends and a son, James, works for Y&R. (Again, never mind that Scheele disclosed all that to Ford or that the son's job is an entry-level post, in New York, on non-Ford accounts.) Two days after the newspaper report, Ford rescinded Scheele's orders and named a committee of marketing, finance and purchasing executives to determine the future course of Ford-WPP relations.

And we all know what good work committees do.

From WPP's London headquarters, the reaction was characteristically understated; "bizarre" was about the strongest oath muttered. In the US, the outcry was more passionate. "This was totally something inside Ford, leaked by a rival, to get Scheele," a senior manager at one Ford agency sputtered.

If the situation worsens, perhaps WPP needs a Plan B. Wonder how "See the USA in your Chevrolet" sounds when sung with a British accent.

Detroit 13 March - Ford Motor Co. said Thursday its North American second-quarter production would be 17 per cent lower than a year ago due to higher inventories and the launch of the new F-Series pick-ups.