Why did WPP lose Ford? Start with the advertising

Ford: 'Unlearn' by Blue Hive, the bespoke Ford agency later rebranded Global Team Blue by WPP
Ford: 'Unlearn' by Blue Hive, the bespoke Ford agency later rebranded Global Team Blue by WPP

Even a Dacia spot has been outperforming ads from the world's first car brand, according to System1's effectiveness research on automotive advertising.

The news that Ford decided to move from WPP to Omnicom cannot have come as too much of a surprise for Mark Read, WPP's newly promoted chief executive. 

Ford first alerted WPP that the relationship was on rocky ground in November last year, when the carmaker called a review of its internal and external marketing model. Ford proposed a further agreement for a period in 2018, but did not commit to a longer-term contract.

Then, in April, Ford called a formal global review of the entire creative business, just a week after Read's predecessor, Sir Martin Sorrell, stood down.

But apart from the vague language in the statements and a few articles speculating why Ford called the review, what was the actual reason to call time on a relationship that started even before Sorrell was born?

Poor creative

The relationship has been under strain for a while and potential poor performance of WPP's creative work probably hasn’t helped. According to research conducted by System1’s Ad Ratings tool, which has analysed all car ads during 2016-2018 in both the UK and the US, Ford has the second-worst rating for its creative (see chart). 

The Ad Ratings tool uses emotional metrics to understand consumers' implicit engagement with an ad and uses it as an accurate predictor of long-term brand growth. It uses a ranking out of five, where one star is 0% long-term brand growth and five stars means 3% brand growth. 

Ford has the second-worst score for its creative, with long-term brand growth only achieving an average rating of 1.4 stars for all ads between 2016 and 2018.

There have been a couple of anomalies. For instance, Ford’s latest creative work has scored more than double its average rating, equating to 1% long-term brand growth – performing higher than many of its rivals, especially within the UK. However, overall, more than 53% of Ford’s advertising in September has driven 0% long-term brand growth.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles brands such as Fiat and Jeep are dominating the sector with average ratings of 2.5 and 2.0 respectively, highlighting consumers' affinity for loud and musical creative work that is more associated with brands such as Beats and Nike rather than traditional car advertising. 

Even Dacia’s last "Go Buster" ad, a parady of the iconic Ghostbusters theme tune, is outperforming Ford’s latest creative. When a budget Romanian manufacturer with very little heritage is doing better than the world’s first car brand, you know it is time for change.

Ford will be hoping that its brand strapline lives true for its relationship with Omnicom: "Together we go further." A change of direction, as well as an injection of new energy and ideas into its stuttering advertising, may come as a good thing.


The System1 benchmarking tool Ad Ratings measures the implicit emotions the ad generates in the consumer and the intensity of that emotional resonance. This score is then weighted for business effect and a rating of 1-5 stars is produced.

Long-term brand growth is then predicted based on the star rating: 1 star equals 0% brand growth; 2 stars is 0.5%; 3 stars is 1%; 4 is 2%; and 5 stars is 3%-plus.  

The prediction side of the tool has been independently validated by the IPA. Using submissions to the IPA Effectiveness Awards, one of the most robust submission procedures in the industry, emotional engagement was cross-referenced with real-world brand growth in various categories, and the system was then modelled on those results.  

Tom Ewing is head of marketing and market intelligence at System1

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