Agency Followed 'Simple' Equation for Honda Success


When ad man Gerry Rubin began pitching Hondas in 1974, the company was selling just 43,000 cars a year. Hoping to assuage customer concerns that Honda cars were little more than motorcycles in disguise, Rubin regularly used oversize pictures of Honda cars in print advertisements to convey durability and power.

Twenty-five years later, Rubin still is pitching cars for Honda, which now sells 43,000 every three weeks. The association is a remarkable run in an industry in which relationships increasingly can be measured in months rather than decades. The ties that bind Santa Monica-based Rubin Postaer & Associates and Honda grew even more stronger last week when the auto maker shifted its $150-million Acura advertising account to the agency from Los Angeles-based Suissa Miller.

The long-term relationship has been built upon a fundamental understanding that cars should always be the driving force in Honda's advertising. Rivals gripe that Honda's solidly built cars could sell themselves. But industry observers credit Rubin Postaer with crafting ads that usually are as functional as the vehicles. The campaign has remained on its "keep it simple" course for years, with fine-tuning for changing consumer tastes and the occasional crisis.

Many early ads are built on a clean, white background that focuses attention on the car. The formula continues to work, no matter whether the product is a Civic sedan, an upscale Accord or the popular Odyssey minivan. Rubin notes that the "We make it simple" tag line introduced in the 1970s is still evident in a campaign that pitches Honda as a way to "simplify" life.

The Honda consolidation clearly reinforces Rubin Postaer's image as a car agency. That's a distinction with positive and negative implications in the image-conscious advertising world. The agency headed by Rubin, president and chief executive, and Larry Postaer, executive creative director, has other accounts, including American Century Investments and Gardenburger. But many clients are going to worry that an agency beholden to a star client such as Honda won't have the time or talent for lesser clients.

The surprise change pushed Rubin Postaer's Honda billings to more than $500 million and led competitors to grumble about repercussions from the agency's willingness to slash profit to grab the account.

Rubin won't discuss specifics but says the deal is a "fair and reasonable agreement for any agency that doesn't want to go the way of the Hula-Hoop and the dodo bird. . . . It's not the 1980s anymore."

Honda didn't seem destined for success in 1970 when it introduced the N600 model. The under-powered sedan was no match for U.S. freeways. It was so tiny that Jay Chiat, whose agency had the Honda account in 1970, once opened the front doors of a friend's house and drove the car inside.

Honda's line evolved dramatically in 1974 with the introduction of the Civic. That same year, Needham Harper Steers won Honda's account away from Chiat's Los Angeles-based firm and Rubin arrived on the scene. Postaer joined the team in 1986 when Needham (now DDB Needham) spun off Honda to concentrate on the Volkswagen USA account.

Honda's early ads focused directly on the cars. An early television commercial showed a family putting grocery bags into a Civic hatchback. A 1978 print ad drove home the point that Civics consumed both regular and non-leaded fuel. In print and television ads, Honda countered potential anti-Japanese sentiment by showing U.S.-built Hondas on their way for sale in Japan.

The company has used such actors as Richard Dreyfuss in its voice-overs, and Dr. Ruth Westheimer appeared in a commercial. But the cars clearly are the stars in most Honda commercials.

Rubin and Postaer were stung in 1996 when their agency lost a bid for the Acura account to Suissa Miller. "My wife drives an Acura, and now I can let her be seen in public," Postaer quipped recently. "Seriously, I never drove that Acura to work. Like Rubin, I'm purely a Honda guy."

At the time, Honda also viewed Rubin and Postaer as Honda guys. Bypassing its longtime ad agency for an upstart in the auto end of the advertising business sent a message that Torrance wanted a clear vision for its upscale Acura division.

The same message again has been sent. "Gerry and Larry clearly understand the assignment. It was made very clear early on in our communications," said Eric Conn, an 18-year Honda veteran who is now the company's assistant vice president of national automobile advertising. "They know the long-term plan, the direction we're heading in with Acura."

Honda wants Rubin Postaer to generate cost savings by consolidating such back-shop operations as media planning and buying. But Honda doesn't want creative wires to get crossed, so Rubin Postaer will house the Acura creative team in a separate building in Santa Monica.

The 400-person agency will add about 100 people as the account shifts from Suissa Miller. And from the outset, the creative team will face challenges from such competitors as Lexus, on a roll with its upscale line that includes the company's hot sports-utility vehicle.

The latest evolution in Honda's long-term relationship with Rubin Postaer shares an unusual trait with past developments. Honda awarded Rubin Postaer the Acura business without a public review. That's the same scenario that unfolded in 1986 when Honda shifted its $100-million account from Needham to Rubin Postaer.

Honda's willingness to bypass reviews is driven, observers say, by Honda's belief in long-term relationships with suppliers and vendors.

"The length of the relationship is unusual, but it's made life a lot easier too," Conn said. "I know there's also a chance that it can be a danger. But I think we have developed a respect for each other. We can be good friends one moment and pretty serious about business the next."

Honda and Rubin Postaer acknowledge the dangers of becoming set in their ways. Postaer says he regularly rotates creative people to assignments involving other clients. He'll shift employees from the Civic segment to the Odyssey minivan business to keep perspectives fresh. He reads auto buff books, he tries to view new advertising from the vantage point of "a non-car guy" to ensure that copy speaks to consumers rather than industry insiders.

The deal also has reignited speculation that Rubin, 59, and Postaer, 60, will one day use the impressive Honda account as bait for a buyout offer.

Rubin dismissed talk of selling out: "Neither Larry nor I has lost the passion for the business."

* LEADER OF THE PACK: Honda's new S2000 convertible stands apart from the competition, Paul Dean writes. Highway 1, W1

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