WCRS 1979-1999: The BMW years - The story of the BMW account has passed into agency folklore as the strategy, based on the core brand values identified by WCRS, has evolved over the past 20 years

One evening in 1979, two deflated souls sat in the austere, black leather-upholstered bar of Munich’s Hilton Hotel. The normally effervescent Robin Wight and one of his three new partners at WCRS, Peter Scott, had just quit the cosy rut of established agency life to set up their own shop and had virtually nothing in the way of business. They had just completed their first major pitch, which had not gone well.

One evening in 1979, two deflated souls sat in the austere, black

leather-upholstered bar of Munich’s Hilton Hotel. The normally

effervescent Robin Wight and one of his three new partners at WCRS,

Peter Scott, had just quit the cosy rut of established agency life to

set up their own shop and had virtually nothing in the way of business.

They had just completed their first major pitch, which had not gone


True, they’d been invited personally by John Wagner, the new managing

director of a German car manufacturer, to make presentations. Wagner had

worked with Wight before, when he was at Audi and Wight was a copywriter

at Euro. Now Wagner had asked WCRS to devise a strategy that his new

employer could use to raise its profile in Britain. ’Stick to cars,’

Wagner had warned, ’don’t mess with strategy for their bikes.’ But the

powers that be had sat in stony-faced silence as Wight and Scott

unfolded their vision of the future.

The pair were were so absorbed that they initially didn’t notice a third

figure slip into the bar. It was the normally ebullient Wagner, looking

grave. ’Why didn’t you mention bikes?’ Wagner challenged them. ’What do

you mean?’ cried Wight, ’you told us not to.’ Unable to keep up the

charade, Wagner cracked into a broad grin, and gave them both a hug.

WCRS had won the one account it would keep for the next 20 years:


Looking back, Wight admits the early days did not always go well,

despite a cracking first ad for the marine division. This used a

startling image of a boat being sucked backwards over the edge of a

waterfall above a description of how powerful BMW’s engines are in

reverse. It was such an arresting image that the Daily Mail rang up to

ask if the photograph was real. ’Better than that,’ says Wight, ’it was

two real photos put together.’

But the new team was less successful with its first work for the car

division, a TV commercial which brought together all the aspirational

excesses of the 80s.

It opened on a racing car track where a mechanic was taking a phone call

for someone. After a quick search, he tells the female caller that the

person she wants is not there. This scene is repeated at a bespoke

tailor, a stable, and finally a restaurant, where the maitre d’ finally

does spot the caller’s quarry: the film star, Kirk Douglas. Douglas is,

however, busy sliding out of a BMW with a blonde babe on his arm, and

waves the call dismissively away as if to say he doesn’t need any more

out of life.

It bombed. ’Nobody liked it. Germany hated it, and Wagner was very

disappointed in us,’ admits Wight. ’So we settled down and began

concentrating purely on the car.’ It was a terrible debut for BMW, but

WCRS never made the same mistake again. People have rarely appeared in a

BMW ad since. Or, more accurately, since the birth of the phenomenally

successful campaign that replaced it, headlined: ’The ultimate driving


The job ahead of WCRS was clear back in 1980. BMWs were known as

performance cars, but in order to achieve BMW’s target of tripling sales

by 1990, the new advertising had to reach beyond the enthusiast and

appeal to everyday users. But at the same time the brand had to retain

its cachet.

Wight and his cohorts set out for Germany to commune with the cars and

the engineers who made them. In a recent article, he described this

process rather poetically: ’Rather than try to whip up a motivational

souffle, we decided to search for the little pieces of grit from which

the pearls of a great brand could be created.’

They first had to convince BMW about the merits of the process that came

to be called ’product interrogation’. ’’I would like to interrogate your

product until it confesses to its strengths’ was the simple proposition

made to the then head of BMW,’ recalls Wight. ’Such a request hadn’t

been made before. Did not the brochures, press releases and road

reports, together with a thorough briefing by BMW’s marketing department

provide sufficient material from which to create convincing

advertisements? And hadn’t BMW already been quite successful without

letting bow-tied ad men distract their engineers from the important task

of designing great cars?’

Munich eventually agreed, however, and the annual pilgrimage of the WCRS

interrogation team was born.

Wight draws an analogy with mining: ’Like any prospecting, great mounds

of dross are unearthed. Much of it, though perhaps of interest to

consumers, may not be appropriate to the discipline of a magazine ad or

a TV commercial. But along the way, we’ve unearthed little gems which

have enabled us to illuminate the BMW brand in a way that parking a car

outside a stately home or renting a bit of fake glamour could never


The trip which yielded WCRS’s ’shaken not stirred’ execution has become

part of agency folklore. Wight remembers: ’I spent half a day pounding

away at a BMW engineer to understand why six cylinders were smoother

than four. Patiently, he explained the physics of the whole process. I

grappled to understand terms like second-order vibrations and harmonic

balance, but deep down I knew that none of these facts would have any

place in a BMW ad.

’Then I had an idea. ’Imagine,’ I told the engineer, ’that your

neighbour was about to buy a two-litre car. You knew he was choosing

between a six-cylinder BMW and a four-cylinder Mercedes. How would you

persuade him to choose the BMW?’ After a moment of thought, the

engineer’s brow cleared.

He suddenly grabbed a glass of water from the table: ’I would take this

glass of water, and place it on both engines,’ he explained


’When I revved the Mercedes engine, the imperfections in the balance of

the engine would destabilise the water in the glass. With the BMW

engine, however, neither the glass nor the water would move.’’

Product interrogation is now an everyday part of BMW advertising, and

has thrown up many of the brand’s most famous ads, such as ’keys’ and

’balance’. The rigour of the approach also enabled WCRS to draw up the

four core values of the BMW brand, and these have formed the basis for

all advertising ever since. Times change, of course, and so does


So the four tenets ’performance, exclusivity, quality and advanced

technology’ have each gone through minor evolutions in the 20 years

since their identification.

Performance, for example, has evolved from ’cars which go faster’ to

’cars which are rewarding to drive’, while quality has changed from the

simple premise that the cars are well-made to the expectation of quality

right through from the design to servicing. Similarly, as other makes of

car have begun packing their vehicles with gizmos, BMW’s claim to offer

’the latest technology’ has translated itself into ’technology which

provides the most thoughtful touches for the driver’. Examples include

the ’butterfly’ ad and ’banana skins’, which highlights BMW’s automatic

stability control system to stop wheel slippage.

There was an important change in the early 80s, when a steep rise in

petrol prices turned gas-guzzling luxury cars into pariahs. BMW,

however, introduced its 7-series, combining both performance and

economy. ’The luxury car is dead,’ ran the headline above a stark image

of a car graveyard, ’long live the luxury car.’

Exclusivity has also had to reinvent itself over the past 20 years,

mainly because of the success of the advertising itself. In 1980 when

BMW GB was first established, sales were running at 13,000 in the UK. In

1998, they hit 68,000. The trick, according to the WCRS board account

director on BMW, Jeremy Hemmings, was to treat BMW like a big hotel

chain. ’Imagine you’re the Hilton,’ he says. ’You’re still the Hilton,

whether you’ve got 40 rooms or 4,000.’

The recession of the early 90s posed a trickier problem. Some of the

luxury brands of the affluent 80s fell out of favour, with unsold

Porsches piling up on dealers’ forecourts. WCRS and BMW dealt with it by

moving quietly on. Yes, there was still lifestyle advertising, but it

focused on the quirky, or on the look of the car - as in ’drawing pins’

- rather than on its aspirational appeal.

Overall, WCRS produces some ten to 12 press ads a year, and four to six

television commercials, as part of a ’sniper’ strategy, which offers

consumers an interesting variety of ads, none of which run for very

long. One thing remains constant, however - the advertising’s tone of


’The BMW world is not warm,’ explains Wight. ’It’s a perfect world where

humans only bring imperfection, a world into which we bring in humanity

by using wit.’ So the colours are cold and often muted or monochrome, a

technique which reached its apogee in ’scales’, a commercial developed

to introduce the new 5-series. There are no glorious views, sunsets, or

glamorous women. The car is king.

To provide light relief, WCRS makes sure to lace its ads liberally with

humour. Wit is used to puncture pomposity, and create a feeling of

belonging to the ’BMW club’ of those who enjoy the joke. This is

especially true of its renowned April Fool’s Day ads.

And it has worked. When WCRS took over the brand 20 years ago, its

arch-rival, Audi, outsold BMW by a ratio of two to one. Now it is the

other way around. And as the brand has grown in stature, so has its

place at WCRS. Wight calls BMW the ’backbone of the agency’. But perhaps

Hemmings’ view is closer to the truth. ’Orange makes the most noise,’ he

says, ’but BMW is the agency’s emotional heart.’