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Business

Mullen lands $200m Acura advertising account

Deal a boost to agency’s West Coast growth

The Boston advertising firm Mullen solidified its position as an industry leader this week when it landed the account of the luxury auto brand Acura, analysts said.

The account, estimated at $200 million, is one of the biggest to be opened to competitive proposals in years, the analysts said, and the biggest for Mullen in its 40-year history.

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“Winning a national piece of business with a budget like this is big for Mullen,” said Judy Neer, president of the Boston marketing consulting firm Pile and Co. “It continues to put them on the map of agencies as a national powerhouse.”

The win adds Acura, the luxury division of American Honda Motor Co., to Mullen’s stable of high-profile companies, such as Google, JetBlue, and Zappos, which have helped drive the agency’s revenues up 82 percent since 2009, according to the company.

But car accounts tend to be the most prestigious and sought after in the industry because they are rare and offer opportunities for agencies to showcase their creative abilities through national broadcast and media campaigns. Analysts say Acura is one of the largest auto companies to settle with a Boston agency.

For Mullen, Acura provides a springboard to expand its West Coast business. The agency opened its first office in San Francisco last year and has committed to another office in Los Angeles near American Honda’s Torrance, Calif., headquarters.

“It allows us to continue to display our work on a national level,” said Mullen president Alex Leikikh. “It allows us to continue to expand our West Coast footprint. And it allows us to do what’s most important here: attract the world’s best talent to our company.”

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Mullen’s good fortune marks a tough loss for Rubin Postaer and Associates of Southern California, which had held Acura’s account since 1999 and American Honda’s since 1974. All of American Honda’s advertising business, including Acura’s, was estimated at $1.14 billion in 2011.

American Honda announced a three-month competitive review process in December. Mullen was among four finalists, including RPA, 72andSunny of Los Angeles, and The Martin Agency of Richmond, vying to lead the creative advertising for both brands. RPA held on to the Honda brand, but lost Acura to Mullen.

Analysts say Mullen faces a challenge in redefining Acura, which has seen US car sales drop 25 percent since a 2005 peak of nearly 210,000 vehicles to about 156,000 last year, according to AutoData Corp.

Acura accounted for 9.6 percent of luxury vehicles sold in the United States in 2012, behind Lexus, BMW, and Mercedes.

Michelle Krebs, senior analyst at Edmunds.com, an online car resource for consumers based in Santa Monica, Calif., said Acura was an early success when Honda introduced it in 1986 as the first luxury US line from a Japanese car company. Models such as the Legend and Integra caught on with consumers, but it didn’t last.

Efforts to appear less bland gave Acura’s newer models features that consumers found unattractive, she said.

Then Honda and Acura hurt their image for reliability when the vehicles experienced transmission problems a few years ago.

“They had a good reputation, but somewhere they lost their way,” she said. “They started trying to force themselves to stand out by doing things with design that were a little bit funky.”

John Verret, associate professor of advertising at Boston University, said Acura’s initial popularity fizzled because American Honda stopped focusing on the brand.

“The advertising for Acura has been just kind of blah,” he said. “It would be very difficult for me to tell you anything about an Acura ad without my computer at my side.”

Craig Carlson of The Carlson Group, a Massachusetts automotive technology and innovation consulting firm, said one reason behind American Honda’s decision to separate Honda’s and Acura’s creative advertising is to give Acura more attention and differentiate it from the larger brand.

“Having an agency that specializes in Acura will help decouple it a little bit,” he said.

Taryn Luna can be reached at taryn.luna@globe.com.

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