Full service history: Sean Cummins and Jeep marketer Tom Noble on open relationships, trust and finding new partners
Tom Noble joined Jeep in February 2020. He already had a massive job on his hands reversing Jeep's brand implosion. Within weeks Covid crashed the car market to a 30-year low. He stuck with Cummins&Partners to begin a total brand rebuild and continue a 10-year relationship. It seems to be paying off. Sean Cummins, meanwhile, says the agency has no plans to get into bed with a network. But he is eyeing new partners to crack China.
What you need to know:
- Cummins&Partners set up shop with founding client Jeep ten years ago.
- The two have had ups and downs, but the relationship has held strong. Now they are trying to rebuild the brand.
- Jeep Marketing Director Tom Noble: We could have repitched, but marketers are too quick to blame agencies. Throwing away brand equity makes no sense.
- Cummins&Partners’ Sean Cummins: Marketers that forego retainers and relationships for “quick hit” projects incentivise short-termism and end up paying a heavy price.
- Cummins insists selling out to a network is not on the cards. But he is sounding out partners big enough to take on China.
Cummins&Partners and its biggest client are pretty much synonymous. “I Bought A Jeep” put both of them on the map.
The independent agency opened its doors in 2011. That year Jeep sold 4,600 vehicles in Australia. Three years later, a smart but simple campaign and aggressive pricing had driven annual sales north of 30,000.
As Jeep grew, so did Cummins&Partners. While there have been a few u-turns along the way, it’s now a full service agency employing 150 people across two continents, with founder partner Sean Cummins insisting expansion rather than a strategic exit is on the horizon.
Too often marketers step into a new brand and are told to 'fire the agency' and that's just not the right attitude, especially as many don't even ask the reason why.
Borked a Jeep
For Fiat Chrysler Australia, there have been some big bumps in the road. The wheels started to come off in 2016 when Jeep sales collapsed amid reliability issues and recalls.
The same year the company took Jeep’s former country leaders, who had overseen those record sales, to court, though subsequently settled without admission of liability by any party.
By 2019, with sales of 5,519, Jeep was almost back to square one. It installed a new country head to turn things around – then Covid hit, crashing the Australian car market to a 30-year low.
Rescue and recovery
At that time, marketing boss Tom Noble had only just got his feet under the table, joining the firm in February 2020 and tasked with rebuilding trust and reversing sales declines. He entered the picture just as Cummins&Partners had retained the business, but declined to reopen the pitch. Pitching takes up a lot of time and energy – especially in a global pandemic – and the agency, he says, was not the problem.
"Too often marketers step into a new brand and are told to 'fire the agency' and that's just not the right attitude, especially as many don't even ask the reason why," Noble says.
"For some reason it’s seen as their fault, so a pitch needs to be called. But it makes very little sense to me to scrap an agency with a decade of understanding and corporate memory."
He believes that marketers need to think less about new contracts or finding faults, and ask what their partner has in the “bottom drawer”.
"There's always new agency with a new concept, but the incumbent usually has a few in the drawer too, so I started there rather than go through the pitch process again," Noble says.
That pragmatism appears to be paying off. Jeep was one of very few brands to sell more cars in Australia in 2020 than in 2019, shifting 5,748 units during the pandemic year. Single digit growth, yes. But 20 of the top 25 brands went backwards, many by double digits and the broader market was back almost a fifth.
Agency relationships are tenuous, and they are constructed poorly because we are on the drug of projects and have lost focus on the fundamentals of marketing.
The first phase of the recovery was to delve into the back catalogue and tap some of the creative sauce that spurred Jeep to grow – perhaps too fast – in the first place. The marque revived ‘I Bought a Jeep’ and acknowledged its problems, before starting to work on a new brand platform, ‘I’m in’, in a bid to start restoring brand trust.
"It was clear we had some work to do and it could have been easy to scrap everything and start again,” says Noble. “But we knew Cummins had the knowledge and experience to be bold and reshape our well-known brand positioning.”
Sean Cummins says that level of trust and loyalty is becoming a rarity in advertising as brands opt for “quick hit” projects over retainers, fracturing the dynamic of a two-way partnership.
"Agency relationships are tenuous, and they are constructed poorly because we are on the drug of projects and have lost focus on the fundamentals of marketing," suggests Cummins, who launched his first agency almost 25 years ago.
"It has led to brands engaging an excessive number of agencies. It means they become less inclined to look past the short-term because that's all they’re being paid for. It’s not sustainable."
Noble agrees that retainer relationships are important, but defends the benefits of spreading work across different agencies.
Provided there are clear working guidelines between agency partners, he thinks it creates a "competitive mindset" that surfaces better work.
"Three or four agencies still remains the manageable amount in my opinion and often allows them to work more closely and competitively on the best ideas," he says.
Properly managed, that approach can lead to healthier relationships.
"What you can't do is breed an unstable, competitive nature that becomes solely about vying for a bigger stake of the business,” says Noble “that's why marketers must be clear about each partner's remit."
None of the major interested parties we've spoken to, and you can guess who they might be, have managed to crack China and so they fall shy of our expectations.
Holding companies calling?
Indie agencies are often criticised for growing fast, hitting a ceiling and selling the business on the way down, often to a network.
Cummins aims to avoid that route, dismissing the “old world thinking” of holding groups that leads to excessive reporting and churn. But he does not rule out a partnership to crack the biggest markets.
"We started with eight partners and to this day have only had two leave,” he boasts. “We've also got plenty of agencies looking to poach our staff – that shows we are a business with not only consistency, but objectives that are exciting and challenging.”
Cummins continues: "There's nothing to be gained from reporting lines back to Paris, London or the US, which brings with it consistent old world thinking that limits creativity. We don't have that limitation, and this offers our talent the ability to grow and evolve."
All that said, Cummins, who sold his previous agency CumminsRoss to SapientNitro in 2010, reportedly earning $30m in the process, does not close the door entirely. A road into China might lead it to consider a tie-up. Talks have already taken place.
"None of the major interested parties we've spoken to, and you can guess who they might be, have managed to crack China and so they fall shy of our expectations," Cummins says.
"The level of innovation, consumer interest and opportunities for brands in China can't be ignored and I think you'll see those agencies who are looking for an edge finding ways in. That's what we would be looking for if we ever entered into another partnership."
Walking the talk
Closer to home, Cummins&Partners last year gained industry-wide plaudits by announcing it would pay salaries back in full - for all staff - after enforced cuts to manage the impacts of Covid.
"It's something we've always believed in,” says Cummins, “Compassion, leadership and ensuring your talent know they’re valued and are a part of the future of a business."
Those principles are equally important in building lasting client-agency relationships.
In everything, suggests Cummins, “Look at the brand, not the cost.”