For 91 years, Campbell Ewald was the official advertising agency for Chevrolet, producing campaigns from the 1950s’ “See the USA in Your Chevrolet” to the last decade’s “Like a Rock.”

But in April 2010, as part of the federal government’s bailout and subsequent streamlining of Chevy parent General Motors Co., the Detroit-based agency was fired from the account.

For the agency’s West Hollywood office, the bad news brought mixed feelings. Although Chevy represented about 25 percent of Campbell Ewald’s total business, the local office handled little work for the automaker. On the other hand, without its signature client, the agency had to come up with a new identity and story to win clients.

Angela Zepeda, managing director of Campbell Ewald’s West Hollywood office, recalled the conference call when she learned about the Chevy loss and its implications.

“It was a moment of feeling stunned because so much of the agency was wrapped up in Chevrolet,” she said. “We started constructing a new story that was relevant to what clients were looking for.”

The unlikely outcome of that process: In the last two years, the office has won three new clients and has more than doubled its size to about 60 employees.

Zepeda decided to make Oakland-based health maintenance organization Kaiser Permanente, an account she had won six years earlier, her new calling card. The strategy was to portray Campbell Ewald as an agency with expertise in the health and wellness industry.

“We honed our story: We know health and wellness; we make ads that are optimistic, uplifting and inspiring; and there is a real business solution for every ad we do,” she said.

So how did Campbell Ewald, a unit of New York-based Interpublic Group, do it?

First, Zepeda used the “Thrive” campaign it developed for Kaiser as its model of success. Before the campaign, research showed consumers liked the subject of health but disliked the health care industry. The upbeat campaign distances Kaiser from the industry’s baggage and encourages viewers to lead healthy lives with simple diet, exercise and lifestyle suggestions. The ads improved Kaiser’s membership numbers and perception ratings in subsequent surveys.

In addition to the “Thrive” case study, the Campbell Ewald pitch also emphasized that the agency tended to keep clients for a long time and that it had a track record of helping clients in regulated industries. Chevrolet and Kaiser provided examples of both qualities.

Luckily for Zepeda, the economic downturn that caused the loss of Chevrolet also prompted a lot of other companies to switch ad agencies. Offers for meetings began pouring into her office and she responded to nearly every one. A Campbell Ewald team even flew from Los Angeles to Alaska to try to win a client.

Eventually, after the team had practiced its pitch countless times, it won the account for San Diego-based Chicken of the Sea, a company eager to recast tuna as a health food. Later, the agency won McKesson Corp., a San Francisco distributor of hospital supplies. Most recently, the agency took over Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board, a non-profit that acts as the city’s official tourism marketing agency.

Positive results

Lisa Ryan, executive director of national advertising at Kaiser in Oakland, said Campbell Ewald has kept up the quality of the “Thrive” campaign even though the agency has won many other clients.

“They have done a good job of not compromising and that’s tricky when growing a business,” Ryan said. “They go out of their way to maintain a high level of attentiveness because in a way, we put them on the map.”

Zepeda said the agency has doubled its work force and could have grown even more if not for corporate changes spurred by the loss of Chevrolet. To mitigate job losses at the 700-person Detroit headquarters, media buyers, digital ad designers and social media experts who formerly worked on Chevrolet have performed full-time jobs by long distance for L.A. clients.

David Logan, professor and associate dean at the USC Marshall School of Business, said that in large companies, innovation usually happens in offices far from headquarters and in reaction to a crisis. He said it was clear Campbell Ewald would have to look for new clients and become more experimental in its creative output.

“The biggest enemy for any business is unexamined assumptions. When you lose the breadwinner client, you look at those assumptions,” he said. “Almost always, people will look back and say it was the best thing that ever happened.”

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.