Ford Does The Obvious In Slowing Car Ads, Picking An Agency

Sometimes covering the advertising industry feels like being in that famous folk tale starring Henny Penny (or Chicken Little, if you prefer). 

Observers are quick to react as if “the sky is falling,” the “common idiom indicating a hysterical or mistaken belief that disaster is imminent,” per Wikipedia. But the more astute, who step back to assess the situation, point out that there’s a reason for everything and it’s really the same as it ever was (to quote David Byrne, who is much cooler than Henny Penny.)

Two situations, both involving Ford Motor Co., prompted news coverage in the past several weeks. One involves slowing some car advertising in favor of truck models; the other involves the process of potentially selecting a new advertising agency, or reaffirming the current agency, GTB.

If you’ve been paying attention to the sales stats of the past several years, which indicate that consumers continue to prefer trucks, causing all  automakers to shift production away from cars in favor of sports utility vehicles and pickup trucks, it’s a no-brainer that advertising would follow suit.

A Ford spokesman confirms that's a natural progression.

“With utilities and trucks approximately 80% of our total U.S. sales, we have refocused our national advertising to promote these vehicles, which continue to grow in popularity,” the spokesman says. “At the same time, our Regional Dealer Advertising groups are able to most effectively promote Ford passenger cars in markets they know best and where customer interest is highest.

“We don’t see this placing a burden on the dealers. Our national and regional advertising teams work seamlessly together to ensure we have the right focus to promote all of the Ford vehicles our dealers sell. Our success as America’s favorite brand for eight consecutive years is proof of the effectiveness of this collaboration.”

News accounts that the Ford Fusion car model is disappearing are incorrect, he adds. It could morph into a "sport-ute," of course. 

“While the current Ford Fusion production ends in a few years, we’ll likely continue to use the name because of its awareness, positive imagery and value with consumers,” the Ford spokesman says. “However, it’s too soon to speculate on what that new vehicle may look like. We are also introducing an updated Fusion for the 2019 model year.”

Ford is being fiscally responsible by making the shifts, says Michelle Krebs, executive analyst for Autotrader and an award-winning automotive writer with nearly 35 years of experience covering and observing the global auto industry. 

“Ford CEO Jim Hackett is focused on financial fitness, so we will be seeing cuts across the company,” she tells MediaPost. “Ford announced it would not bring from China its new Focus Active vehicle. Ford has said it is mostly eliminating its car loans, so cutting advertising (of) those models is pretty logical as long as Ford successfully manages inventories.” 

Dave Zoia, a longtime industry observer and executive director-content for Wards Intelligence at Informa, has a similar take. 

“It doesn’t seem too surprising, given its product-plan shift away from those car models and toward greater emphasis on trucks and utilities,” he says. “My guess is they will shift to regional advertising on those car models because as they wind them down and phase them out, the marketing plan will be all about the deal -- rebates and other discounts -- and that’s better handled by tailoring these offers more specifically to what’s required in each market.  

“There’s less need -- and effectiveness -- for advertising built around brand and product attributes when you have in effect indicated these models won’t really be supported longer-term," Zoia continues. "Ford is focusing its spend where the revenue is coming from, and that’s trucks and utilities.”

Now that we’ve established that Ford is doing what’s logical in where it focuses its ad money, let’s move on to the agency that creates those ads.

Like any giant company, Ford is conducting a periodic review of its ad agency. In the process of the review, the automaker opted to give Wieden + Kennedy a small project to complete. But it’s unknown if Ford will move any other business to the agency, which would seem to already have its hands full with Apple and Nike. Of course, there has been speculation. 

As one longtime industry observer said on his LinkedIn page, what Ford is doing is not unusual. “It sounds like almost any large account review,” he says. “I have been on both sides of several, and there is nothing really new here.”  Of course, that doesn’t stop some journalists from stretching the news into more than it is. 

What hasn’t been written about, and is perhaps more timely, is whether Ford would consider moving its whole account to an agency that raised so much controversy with last week’s debut of the Colin Kaepernick/Nike ad. Could an “all-American” brand like Ford work with that agency?  The answer remains to be seen.  

But realistically, by the time Ford gets around to making a decision on what already has dragged into a five-month review, the Nike controversy will very likely have faded. Such is the upside of the 24-hour news cycle and the micro-attention span of the American public (eight seconds, or shorter than that of a goldfish, according to Microsoft Corp.). If I’ve held you long enough to read this 900-plus-word story, I congratulate myself. 

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