His contract was reportedly worth £600,000 a year. His various characterisations provided enough material to keep his fellow comedians in spoofs for years. The campaign was widely criticised but, according to the company, highly successful. And now Vauxhall is set to dump Griff Rhys Jones.
The former Not the Nine O'Clock News star was hired in November 1999 on a three-year contract in an effort to make the brand more memorable by making it more humorous. Rhys Jones has played the part of a professor, as well as dressing up as a woman and appearing in blue underpants, all in the interests of raising the standard for Vauxhall.
Most car companies favour exotic locations, anonymous beautiful people, special effects and even classical music and robots. Vauxhall's foray into working with a face may not have achieved all the company wanted, but it did create a link between the brand and a particular feel. And that was the reason for using – and presumably losing – Rhys Jones.
It is not unusual for stars to be hired and fired as frontpersons for a company's public face. It is, however, notoriously difficult. At worst, one scandal surrounding the star and the ads are pulled, contracts are carefully scrutinised and brands hastily repositioned. At best, unless the star is a "national institution", there is the danger of face fatigue, as the face of 1999 becomes "so 20th century".
It is an interesting parlour game to go forward a few years and identify which celebrity will head your favourite law firm's big marketing push: Clifford Chance and Eminem? ("We've got the world rapped up"); Bill Oddie and Bird & Bird?
It might seem far-fetched to suggest that we will see a big City firm sign up a celebrity for a televisual push. But maybe not. The time will come when firms feel the need to emerge from the shadowy hinterlands of marketing and establish a clear brand position and identity in what is set to be a complex, deregulated marketplace. The accountancy and management companies have been doing it for some time with obscure television ads on the Andersen Consulting way of seeing the world.
Of course, the first steps will be such touchy-feely ads with actors in soft focus subsumed to an ethereal positioning of the "debenture way of being" – and yes, it probably will go along with a new name.
But it may mature into a more confident stance, and some marketing manager may want to attach a face to it. Having a recognisable face offers a direct connection for the customer – something legal marketing often lacks. It also establishes brand values immediately. Clients are still humans, and the species is preprogrammed to relate to others of its species.
Choosing the face is one thing, but managing it is quite another. I do not mean dealing with a drama darling – many lawyers are quite capable of doing that. No, managing in terms of developing the face and the campaign. Vauxhall probably feels the joke has run its course and the public, the car market, and indeed its own marketing, have matured. Working with a human face demands knowing how to develop that relationship and when to let go.
The pitfalls are obvious, the sensitivities and subtleties difficult. That does not mean, however, that law firms should be afraid of looking to recognisable faces as ways of adding a human face to a product (the firm or a particular service), or a brand that can be dry or easily ghettoised into meaningless and abstract spin.