Philip Morris International (PMI) has appointed Thirteen, a Japanese creative agency owned by McCann Worldgroup Holdings, on a project basis for an undisclosed product launch around its IQOS heated tobacco brand.
Charles Cadell, president of McCann Worldgroup Asia-Pacific and CEO for Japan, described Thirteen as an "independent agency" but explained that a bespoke unit called Team IX had been set up within it to work exclusively on the PMI project. Team IX will draw staff from McCann Worldgroup Japan. Cadell was unable to comment further on the development.
While the appointment is not long-term, it suggests that PMI is looking to expand its roster of agencies, given that projects often lead to ongoing contracts. Publicis One holds the bulk of PMI’s business in Japan and led the launch of IQOS, which debuted in the country in 2014 and is now available in 38 markets globally. PMI is also known to work with Dentsu Isobar for some IQOS-related activities in Japan. An acronym for ‘I quit original smoking’, the brand offers a smoke-free alternative to cigarettes.
Tobacco forms the backbone of some advertising agency networks’ business, including Publicis and WPP (which counts British American Tobacco (BAT) among its biggest clients), but it has long been a controversial sector. Some networks have declined to work on cigarette brands for ethical reasons or to avoid compromising the way they are perceived. McCann Worldgroup parent IPG is known for its significant healthcare business and has not worked with tobacco companies for a long time. Innovation by tobacco companies towards supposedly less dangerous products is now changing the game.
Restrictions on advertising and marketing around these new products still exist, but the ostensibly positive aim of PMI and competitors adopting a similar positioning appears to be leading advertising agencies that have shunned regular cigarettes to reconsider the sector as an acceptable source of business.
‘Heat-not-burn’ (HNB) products like IQOS and e-cigarettes (which are distinct) both occupy a grey area, but are seen by many as an encouraging new direction for the sector. Tobacco companies are keen to present them as a safer—though not entirely risk-free—alternative to conventional cigarettes. Products such as IQOS are designed to deliver nicotine to a smoker with a lower level of the harmful chemicals found in cigarettes.
Critics have pointed out that the long-term effects of HNB products and vaping are difficult to assess. Juul, an e-cigarette company based in San Francisco, is facing lawsuits in the US that allege it misled users, who became nicotine addicts, by overstating the safety of its products in its marketing.
Still, these innovations can be seen to represent the future of nicotine delivery. IQOS commands around 10% of the Japanese tobacco market, and PMI, which is still better known for creating the Marlboro Man, has pledged to “create a world where all smokers switch to better alternatives”.
Marketing activities for IQOS have centred on experiential events and dedicated retail spaces that highlight the science behind the products. This year, in an unusually bold move, PMI occupied a large beachfront space at Cannes Lions that showcased IQOS alongside the likes of Facebook and Twitter.
The rationale appears to have been two-pronged. A representative for the company said PMI’s presence at the festival had been an outreach “to help drive social change by offering smoke-free products to current smokers working in the media and creative industries”.
But the presence can also be seen as a clear signal that PMI has resurfaced as a major potential client as it steps up efforts to usher in a new, more respectable phase for the tobacco industry globally.