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Small North Carolina Ad Agency Takes On Madison Avenue

July 7, 1996 GMT

GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) _ Joe Camel, the aloof dromedary that lifted the fortunes of a sagging cigarette brand and helped ignite the controversy over teen smoking, is no Madison Avenue creation.

Instead, the motorcycle-riding, pool-playing pitchman for Camel cigarettes is the brainchild of the folks at Trone Advertising.

It’s a small ad agency with headquarters nestled in a pastoral area of this North Carolina city where newborn colts still chase their mothers around farm fields.

The agency has grown to 100 employees and $86 million in annual billings since Lee Trone opened it with seven employees on April Fool’s Day in 1982. Most of the staffers are transplants from places such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Trone’s biggest break came in 1987 when Winston-Salem-based R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. hired the agency to develop a campaign to mark the 75th anniversary of Camel cigarettes.

The real purpose of the ad campaign was to lift Camel’s sales _ in advertising industry terms, a process called brand revitalization.

Since Trone created the character of Joe Camel in the late 1980s _ the agency no longer handles the account _ Camel has evolved from a has-been to a market leader.

``Camel is without a doubt the best example of an advertising-driven brand turnaround _ ever,″ said Andrew Jaffe, editor of the trade publication Adweek.

The campaign succeeded because the creative team came in with no preconceptions, Trone said.

``The key word was irreverence,″ he said. ``We had to find how to contemporize the brand. We took a tired old brand and brought it into today and tomorrow.″

The campaign also was greeted with a hefty dose of controversy that continues to this day. Critics charge the cartoon camel was designed to get impressionable teens to start smoking Camels. They say Joe Camel ads that offer discounts on tickets to rock concerts and other shows reinforce their case.

Because his agency hasn’t handled the Camel account for several years, Trone chose not to address the controversy except to say: ``Any publicity in our business is probably good for business.″

Following the Joe Camel success, Trone continued to grow. By 1988, its billings reached $27 million and the staff expanded to 23. The next year, its staff nearly doubled and the agency was doing $31 million in business.

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By 1993, the agency’s portfolio had $71 million in billings and a staff of 100. Trone won the Canandaigua Wine Co. account in 1994, doing campaigns for the nation’s No. 2 winery, which makes Cook’s Champagne, Paul Masson, Almaden, Inglenook, Marcus-James and Taylor-California Cellars.

Last year’s big coup was landing the national Uniroyal Tires account. Like Camel cigarettes, Uniroyal was an established brand that was losing market share.

That gave Trone’s creative staff another chance to revitalize a slumbering giant. But how do you generate interest in tires?

Trone took an amusing approach to the challenge. Instead of filming scenes with Uniroyal tires maneuvering past safety cones on rain-slickened roads, they rolled out Bob.

Driving to work with coffee mug in hand, Bob encounters a large pothole in the street that also happens to share his name. As driver Bob hits pothole Bob, the Uniroyal tires glide over the hole.

Not a drop of coffee is spilled on his work shirt.

The 30-second TV spot, which is running in 15 markets around the United States, ends with the kicker: ``Driving durability home.″

Uniroyal, which is owned by Michelin North America, ranks ninth in the nation in sales of passenger tires with a 3 percent market share.

``It’s a brand that’s been around for years,″ said Jeff Feeney, Trone’s president and chief executive officer and a 30-year New York advertising veteran. ``It had no image.″

All that makes it a perfect product for Trone’s specialty, he said.

``There’s a school of thought which says it’s safer, but not easier, to revitalize a product rather than launch a new one,″ Feeney said. ``It’s expensive to bring out a new product.″