Why Arnold, Nitro Aren’t the Safe Choice for Volvo

NEW YORK Last week, Volvo selected the team of Havas’ Arnold and independent Nitro to handle its estimated $150 million global advertising business.

This follows a 16-year run with Havas’ Euro RSCG, which retains Volvo’s interactive and direct duties.

The Goteborg, Sweden-based client’s director of global advertising, Tim Ellis, led the review, which began in January and got down to Arnold/Nitro versus Publicis’ Fallon in the final round.

He talked exclusively to Adweek about what distinguished the winning agencies, how Volvo will evolve beyond safety and Hyundai’s attempts to poach its contenders.

Q: Volvo’s positioning has long been about safety. Now that Arnold and Nitro are on board, will this broaden?
A: I wouldn’t say we’re broadening the positioning beyond safety. I would say that we’re redefining safety, meaning that we’re redefining the bigger promise behind what safety really means. It’s about identifying an idea in which safety is very firmly grounded in the core, but it presents the brand in a more emotional, desirable way.

We understand there is a high-end lifestyle component in your new positioning.
Absolutely. We are a high-end, upscale brand. Therefore, we need to present the product in a context that is high end and upscale—something that people can aspire to. What we’ve done before is be very inconsistent with our message. We have talked about the things that all car manufacturers talk about—performance, design, safety, high technology— but we haven’t wrapped all that up into one single-minded proposition that communicates what Volvo is all about. To do that, the idea has to build off and leverage the core brand properties that people know about Volvo, which are safety, care for the environment and care for people. The idea has to redefine that in a new, exciting way. It’s about why does Volvo focus on safety? It’s about the care for people, the togetherness you get with a Volvo, the promise of how Volvo builds their cars.

What was the biggest surprise for you and your colleagues during the review process?
The biggest surprise was that the Volvo brand is not an easy nut to crack. It’s a bit of a paradox because we have to continue to be leaders in safety, but at the same time, safety is a very rational positioning, and high-end cars are bought on emotional platforms. Therefore, how do you emotionalize safety and move it to a more desirable arena like our core competitors? It was a tough brief.

How did the team of Arnold/Nitro distinguish itself from Fallon in the final round?
They provided the best balance of focusing on who we are as a company and moving us forward in a more innovative, modern way. Both agencies did present ideas and expressions of those ideas that were grounded in the Volvo brand, but we felt that Arnold did it in the best way. It is based on the focus on people that Volvo has. It’s about “yes safety” and “why safety.”

Did it bother you that Hyundai tried to lure agencies pitching Volvo to its own review?
When Goodby walked, that bothered us. We didn’t feel like it was inappropriate or unethical, but of course it bothered us. We wouldn’t have agreed to put them into the shortlist had we not thought that they were a very capable, interesting agency. It was flattering that Hyundai thought that the agencies we had for our shortlist were also agencies they wanted for their shortlist.

Tell us what Nitro brought to the table.
They’re a very dynamic group and are growing quite fast. One of our core emerging markets is China. They have a very strong office in Shanghai. And from Shanghai, they moved West, which is very interesting and unusual in the advertising industry. That in itself was very appealing and attractive to us. Even though they have a relatively small agency compared to the others competing in this pitch, they have great clients like Nike, which requires a lot of emotion and a lot of passion, which again, is something we want to focus on with Volvo communications.

How important were the agencies’ digital capabilities in making this decision?
What we asked them to do was present media-neutral ideas. Of course, we saw executions in various channels like TV and print and so forth. But we really looked for ideas that were big enough and rich enough to be easily expressed in all media and all channels. We didn’t think about interactive as much as innovation of ideas and richness of creative platforms. We did ask them to give expression of the ideas in various channels, including sponsorship, promotion, interactive, TV, print—everything.

Can we expect a change in the media mix?
No. We’re one of the more innovative advertisers when it comes to nontraditional media or interactive media. We have been recognized by many international award juries for having quite innovative communication platforms.

Will Euro still be expected to contribute interactive ideas, separate from Arnold and Nitro?
Campaign to campaign, we lock in on a core idea and we properly brief and collaborate with the other communications partners to make sure that the essence of the idea stays, but that the expression or execution in that particular channel is relevant and powerful. The difference will be now, as opposed to doing different campaigns over time, all campaigns will be locked into one core idea. That’s the major difference between how we’re going to operate now and how we operated before. We’re moving away from the campaign-to-campaign approach to more of a brand approach.

What were some of the things that prevented other agencies from making it to the final round?
One of the biggest surprises was to see some of the cases that were relatively shallow from big agency networks. [They were] just creative ideas, but not really grounded in any real core insight or business problem that was being solved. Clients are looking for what they can’t do, and they’re also looking for agencies that have great ideas [and] the ability to communicate those ideas with passion and great persuasive power.