During 12 years at Visa International, John H. Bennett was the architect of the bank card industry's most enduring advertising strategy, including the memorable lines "They don't take American Express," and "Everywhere you want to be."

He developed Visa's first advertising agency relationship, which endures, with BBDO Worldwide. He spearheaded Visa's sponsorship of the 1988 Olympics-and Visa has sponsored each subsequent Olympic Games.

Mr. Bennett retired from Visa last October, ending a distinguished financial services marketing career that included 19 years at American Express Co. and stints at Citicorp and Merrill Lynch & Co.

Now working as a consultant out of his Chatham, N.J., home, Mr. Bennett spoke freely in this recent interview-pointing out that the opinions were his own and not those of any past employer.

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What is your current view of the Visa campaign you helped shape?

The folks at Visa have got a campaign that continues to work for them. I know from the research they do that they don't see any reason to change it. It hits on the reason people really have cards: to use them.

The "flash value" is much overrated, particularly in the pragmatic world that we're in today. Utility is the No. 1 benefit, and it always has come up that way in all of the research. Visa found a way to dramatize that fact.

One of the keys to what Visa found was that their whole campaign is based on a fact-it's not based on perception. American Express had been very, very successful in the early days in romancing the perception that American Express was everywhere, that you couldn't leave home without it.

It was, more than anything, sort of a scare tactic. People who were traveling were not sure what they were going to run into. They knew the American Express name-they had confidence in that. But increasingly, as people traveled and found from their own experience that it really wasn't as difficult and wasn't as fun an experience as they thought, their behavior started to change.

What about the Visa ads has made them so effective?

Visa was able to track on a consumer behavior a trend that was developing: card usage based on the utility. It was helped by the fact that Visa had, through its banks worldwide, established a distribution system, a network of merchants that was many times larger than the American Express distribution base.

So although Amex owned this perception of utility and the upscale market, Visa, in fact, had the distribution. But for a while Visa had not been able to find a way to dramatize that. I guess it was a chicken-and-egg situation. The distribution happened so rapidly-they had this asset which just developed literally overnight. So when I went out there, the challenge was to use what we had to differentiate Visa from MasterCard.

From MasterCard? Don't the ads go after American Express?

That's the whole basis of that campaign, from a strategic standpoint. American Express has never been the objective-the target-of Visa.

That's something that people have not clearly understood. Many people look at the campaign as outsiders and say, "Well, Visa's taking on American Express." That's not true at all. American Express is not the target. The target is really MasterCard, and the objective all along was to differentiate bank cards.

That's the challenge for the bank card industry, to find positioning that differentiates the products that the same distributor is marketing. It's a Coca-Cola/Pepsi campaign-Coca-Cola and Pepsi have got to do the same thing for Safeway supermarkets. That's what it was all about.

We were very fortunate at the time that Amex was there as the strategy- not as the target, not as the objective. By comparing to Amex and using the fact of the wider distribution, we were able to remove MasterCard from the competitive frame.

By ignoring MasterCard, you were trying to render them irrelevant?

Yes. It was then Visa versus American Express as far as the public was concerned. It was very timely, because in the '80s, people said, "Let's go for something that's real, that works."

Amex had been on this pedestal. Americans like nothing more than knocking something off a pedestal. It was time.

What about MasterCard?

MasterCard, all along, has been trying to recover. Since the early '80s they've been trying to find a niche, a positioning, that will do the same sort of thing for them (that Visa's campaign did). They haven't been able to find that, and when an agency doesn't come up with it, they kind of lose patience and go to another and try to find that silver bullet.

American Express has begun to take on Visa more directly-do you think it's working?

I think Amex has found it necessary to get a lot more specific, a lot more feature- and benefit-oriented in their ads. They've found it necessary to position themselves on more of a value basis because the whole perception trick is over.

It took them a while, because they had such a lot invested in that. But I think what you've seen them doing lately has been relatively successful for them-I think they have found a key there.

What do you think distinguishes Visa's advertising from competitors'?

The secret of their success is that they really understand the essence of a marketing partnership with an agency. I'm not sure MasterCard has ever really figured that out.

It's really very simple-it's like A, B, C. It's "hire the best available partner and then give them appropriate direction." The most important thing then is to have confidence in A and B-that you've got the best available, they've got the direction-now take what they come back with and run with it.

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