An Ad Firm Done In By Corporate Politics

Anyone captivated by the Clio awards, that gala review of the year's best TV advertising, may have had occasion to wonder what, precisely, is being celebrated and why. Isn't there something vaguely indecorous about the sight of service-industry workers strutting forward to accept prizes for work done to benefit someone else?

Former New York Times reporter Randall Rothenberg's ``Where the Suckers Moon: An Advertising Story'' initially reinforces the idea that ad agencies too often place their own ambitions ahead of clients' needs. But by the end of this tour de force of research and reportage (a perfect companion to Peter Mayle's 1990 confessional ``Up the Agency: The Funny Business of Advertising''), readers will be less certain where to invest their sympathy.

Structured around Subaru of America's May 1991 ad-agency search, in which six firms vied for the $75 million prize, the book compellingly illustrates how a creative team's most sublime concept can disappear into a bubbling morass of corporate politics, only to resurface as the opposite of what it intended.

After witnessing the eventual defeat of the winning agency at the hands of a stubborn automaker, readers may find themselves happy to let the agency folks cherish every Clio they win.

Just imagine the spectacle: Six top creative teams gather, each competing to highlight your best attributes. Brandishing statistics, storyboard, and bluster, they explain why you deserve greater success, then present a strategy to make you not merely rich, but famous too, asserting with sober conviction that they have found the ``big idea'' that will make you the toast of your industry.

To the Subaru executives who enjoyed just such a display nearly four years ago, this was no mere exercise in ego massage. At the end of the elaborate dog-and-pony show, a hard decision had to be made. After a meticulous review of their scattered impressions, they chose the hot firm of Wieden & Kennedy of Portland, Ore. W & K had become famous for its taboo-breaking mid-`80s ads using rock musician Lou Reed to sell Honda scooters. Though the scooters didn't sell, the campaign was a boon for the agency's cachet. The firm became an auteur shop with the power to make its clients famous.

The Honda ad was already a trophy on the agency's shelf when in 1986 W & K landed the Nike account. Before long America was marveling at the many things that Bo Jackson knows.

So W & K won Subaru's confidence from a position of strength, but as it turned out, a little too much strength for Subaru's liking. The agency's high-concept plan to burn the slogan, ``Subaru. What to Drive,'' into the American consumer's consciousness ran afoul of Subaru's dealers, who preferred more-direct pitches. Soon a three-way feud broke out between the agency, Subaru's executives, and the dealers. On and on they argued: How many sports coupes can dance on the head of a pin?

Ultimately, there is a ringing irony to Rothenberg's narrative: For all the expertise of W & K's wizards and revolutionaries, and despite the savvy of Subaru's in-house marketers, the real authorities turned out to be the consumers - recruited, sequestered, and interrogated in focus groups.

At a time when image is said to be everything, and when these images are fashioned with such calculated care by Madison Avenue's illusionists, it is refreshing to have so convincing a demonstration that the power sits with the consumer. That, according to the book, ``there is no truth outside consumer's beliefs,'' is the sharpest of double-edged swords.

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