Editor's Note: Peter is busy with other pursuits this week, so on the heels of last week's "The Autoextremist Manifesto, Refueled" we're running the remarks Peter gave in a speech to the Jumpstart Automotive Group conference at The Townsend Hotel, here in Birmingham, Michigan, this past July. Clearly Peter has been on a roll this summer, and “refueled” doesn't even begin to capture it. If the past few weeks are any indication, I'd say we are in for a "Peter Vortex" this coming winter! - WG
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
"Written words still have the amazing power to bring out the best and the worst of human nature. We ought to treat words the way we treat nuclear energy or genetic engineering—with courage, caution, vision and precision." Nadine Gordimer, winner of South Africa's first Nobel Prize in literature.
I hope everyone is feeling bright and lively today, because when it comes right down to it we all have a lot to be thankful for.
And right about now you’re thinking, wait, this is that Autoextremist guy? Sounding vaguely like a greeter at Home Depot?
Nah, don’t misunderstand, and more about me in a moment.
I just wanted to remind everyone that you are engaged in cutting-edge marketing and new media forms, and a lot of people envy you for that.
Sometimes it’s good to step back and remind ourselves that what we’re doing is eminently preferable to shoveling shit in Louisiana, as George C. Scott so famously uttered in Patton, if you know what I mean.
Me? I’ve been fortunate enough to be doing exactly what I’ve wanted to do for going on sixteen years now. What began as a labor of love quickly became my passion - okay, some would say my obsession – and it has been a wild and strange trip indeed that has run the gamut from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows and everything in between.
No, I’m not going to bore you with excruciating detail as to how I arrived at this point, but I’ll give you a few high hard ones from my career to help you get an idea of who I at least seem to be.
It would be nice to regale you with some impressive highlights from my academic career but there are none. In fact, I matriculated through High School and college in decidedly average fashion.
Why? Well, to be honest, I have always been a maverick – some would say a malcontent - who goes his own way. I was never a “joiner” or a “belonger” and groupthink was never my idea of a good time. I also seemed to have a problem with authority – yeah, I know, shocker, right? - and inevitably I went against the grain more often than not.
But one thing I discovered along the way was my love of language and words, and of course, writing. Which is how I ended up in advertising.
(Oh, I left out the part about dropping out of college the first go-around, pumping gas on Woodward at not one but two different stations, hand-wrapping strap steel around 30,000 pound steel coils in a Detroit warehouse, being a delivery guy for a sales training firm and racing cars in England. Then I returned to get my degree. But I digress...)
I should clarify that having a love of writing and working in the advertising profession do not always go hand–in-hand, otherwise I might hear your bullshit detectors going off.
The reality is I found out that in advertising there was a constant “War of Words” going on, which meant either using fewer of them to say more, or, if the clients were too heavy handed - which unfortunately was a constant - trying to jam 50 pounds of words into a 25-pound bag.
The words at the beginning by the eloquent Nadine Gordimer have great meaning, because over the course of working in advertising and then walking away from it cold one day to start Autoextremist.com, I learned that the power of words does indeed bring out the best and worst in people, and that words should indeed be treated with courage, caution, vision and precision.
I’m sure some of you in this room have pegged me for an Internet dinosaur, or worse, given that my website is devoid of tricks and visual come-ons, and, really? I only publish once a week.
How can this be, you might ask? How can it be that in this day and age of instantaneous self-absorption, and 24-hour a day selfie-fueled over-sharing, that I get away with showing up every Wednesday in my role as The Oracle of The Motor City, and that’s it?
Yes, I feel so desperately ashamed that I don’t have a room full of Autoextremist fan boys and girls busy keystroking away 24 hours a day on the chance that I – or our readers - might miss something.
But that was never the point of Autoextremist.com.
After hammering away in the automotive ad biz for 22 years and having grown up immersed in an automotive childhood with deep ties to Detroit’s glory days, I had something to say, and back in ’99, when the whole thing started, the now ancient Internet afforded me a forum where I could say it.
Ironically enough, my vision for Autoextremist was originally as an all-new car magazine for enthusiasts, an idea I first contemplated back in 1986. This new magazine wouldn’t accept any advertising at all so that we could say exactly what we wanted to about the cars and the business, no matter how negative or positive. But my ad career got in the way and it took thirteen years before I could see it through to fruition.
So, back to the power of words.
The reason Autoextremist is editorially focused is that for me it was never about showing the latest and greatest spy photos, and now, since we’ve become YouTube Nation, it’s not about bombarding people with videos either. Yes, you will find pictures and links to videos on Autoextremist.com, but only if they can enhance the point of a story or commentary.
No, Autoextremist is about the power of words. From Day One I set out to expose a business that I felt was doing a giant pirouette into the Abyss of Mediocrity. The business of designing, engineering, building and marketing automobiles as practiced here in the Motor City was on the decline, so much so in fact that I felt the need to name names and call out the people who were responsible.
The slow, steady swoon of Detroit was palpable, and I could feel it taking hold of what once was a shining beacon of this country’s industrial might and squeezing the very life out of it. Good enough became good enough, profits trumped creativity and innovation became anathema. It was a giant, festering bowl of Not Good.
I could see it in many (but thankfully not all) of the clients I worked with too. The good ones either had grown tired of getting beaten down by the system, or they just didn’t care anymore. And the bad ones – those maliciously incompetent and blissfully unburdened with spinal structure - got promoted. The cars were stale and paled in comparison to the burgeoning Asian and European competition, and the prevailing industry attitude bordered on being comatose, as if it was on a giant death march to oblivion.
And incredibly enough, that’s exactly where it was going.
Having seen the gradual degradation of this business up close and personal during my ad career, and with a healthy glimpse of how great it once was and could be again, I set out to first elevate the heroes, and then expose the spineless weasels and relentless hacks who were doing their damnedest to screw things up.
Not surprisingly, I took particular aim at the marketing and product strategy fiascos and the people responsible for them, because they were the most glaringly flawed and shockingly ill considered.
As you can imagine, the power of words can be threatening to people, especially in a moribund industry that wasn’t used to being exposed in a negative way. I mean, let’s face it, the “company line” wasn’t invented in the auto business, but the denizens of the Detroit-based car companies were certainly masters at it.
So, the “Bare-Knuckled, Unvarnished, High-Octane Truth” appeared like a bolt out of the blue on June 1, 1999. And thanks to a rudimentary guerilla marketing campaign – I emailed various members of the media at 6:00 a.m. that morning - and, being the inveterate gossips that they are, the news of Autoextremist.com spread like wildfire.
Not only did AE not sit well with the power structure in this company town, it struck fear deep into their collective hearts, because what I was writing was not only frightfully accurate, it was painfully true.
I set out to “influence the influencers” first, and some of the most fervent early readers of the site were members of the media, who poured over it constantly looking for industry intelligence and story ideas. And this just in: they still do.
Not overnight, but within a year, we began to see a tonal shift in the coverage of the auto business in this town, as the stories in even the most staid auto publications became more aggressive and the subject matter that used to be off limits became par for the course, all because of Autoextremist.com.
The power of words has propelled Autoextremist.com to a position of influence in this business that is very gratifying for me personally. People want to know what I’m thinking about each week and I’m grateful for that too. Our readers are looking to be moved by the power of words, and that’s what I try to deliver every week.
The people who read Autoextremist.com have grown to have high expectations, because we have set such a high standard for ourselves from the beginning. I never phone it in, nor would I want to for that matter. I’ve found that being expected to bring it every single week is a very good thing for the soul.
So what about the business right now? Here you are dealing with the power of words every single day. In this era of 24/7 communication, I will be the Master of the Obvious for a moment by stating that social media is this new era’s word of mouth, and I’m sure you’re acutely aware that the words you use have an enduring power.
I’m also sure you’re aware that with that power comes new responsibilities, consequences and ramifications. The wonders of the sudden impact of social media can turn into the horrors of instant derision too. I don’t need to tell you that because you experience it every day as well.
Add to all of this the phenomenon of clients rabidly embracing the Digital Age – sometimes with little rhyme or reason - and that has only served to complicate matters even further.
I think it’s very important to remember that the use of social media will never mask a flawed product or a bad idea. I just wish more marketing executives in this business would step back, take a deep breath, and really understand what that means. But that’s unlikely to change anytime soon, I’m afraid.
While I’m on the subject of clients, I also see too few glimmers of real spark in the auto advertising business, which to me is flat-out inexcusable. The threat of clients yanking business away on a whim has led ad agencies to abandon their subject expertise and veer toward a dismal cadence of playing it safe, being unable or unwilling to push back, and becoming mere order takers more often than not.
And that is so much unmitigated bullshit too.
A hoary adage of the ad biz suggests that clients get the advertising they deserve, and that is so very true. But when auto manufacturers have too many poseurs and unmentored amateurs in their marketing departments making pivotal decisions, and advertising agencies mirror that behavior by succumbing to pathetic puppeteering, the results are never good, and then both parties get exactly what they deserve.
In thinking about being with you today the one thing I kept asking myself is this: How has this business really changed in the last fifteen years? Or has it changed that much at all?
In some ways it has, and others, not so much.
Just because the car companies have found product religion doesn’t mean they aren’t susceptible to making the same mistakes over and over again. I see it every day in this business too. Overreaching or flat-out dumb product decisions combined with tentative or misguided marketing programs are an ongoing recipe for disaster, one that still plays out with shocking regularity. And as Chris Rock so eloquently puts it, That ain’t right.
Yes, of course the global nature of this business has changed, with automakers skewing new product development and intensive marketing efforts to China, now the single largest transportation market in the world. Yes it means giant, unforeseen future profits, but where the business is heading because of it is anyone’s wild-ass guess.
And certainly the country has changed in definitive ways as well, and it’s having a fundamentally life-altering effect on this business.
The drums of the anti-car intelligentsia are beating loudly, fueled by the autonomous cars movement and the hatred from politicians in Washington, the Northeast and Northern California of anything and everything to do with the automobile. The din has now grown beyond an occasional annoyance to a full-blown national agenda, and where that is heading is nowhere good, you can count on that.
And the social networking currency of the car culture-fueled 60s – the automobile - has gone by the wayside, too, replaced by digital devices that have eliminated the need for getting in cars and socializing.
And with The Coddled and Entitled generation, who have been driven around their entire lives and who are finding it difficult to believe that cars aren’t just yesterday’s icky news, this business is facing a difficult future to say the least.
But then again, as much as this business has changed in fifteen years and as much as the anti-car forces are flexing their muscles to end everything to do with the automobile, as we know it, I retain a shred of optimism for the automobile and the business surrounding it.
Freedom of mobility remains an intensely powerful notion. And when you get out from behind the cacophony generated by the media centers in this country – which is unending and with unfailing certainty buries the automobile and everything associated with it with emphatic glee – you realize that the rest of the country doesn’t feel that way.
You realize that people not only still need cars, they actually like cars too. And kids outside of the group-hugging social media enclaves still look forward to getting their driver’s licenses, which, according to the media reports, doesn’t actually happen anymore.
The anti-car factions would also have us believe that in a matter of a few years we will be free and unfettered of the tyranny of the automobile, that with a flip of a switch we will order-up our clown cars with our cell phones and it will all be lovely and good. We will then become a nation of shiny, happy, anesthetized smiley faces blissfully unaware of anything… going nowhere, s-l-o-w.
But they’re forgetting one very basic thing about the automobile that is still true to this day, and that is the enjoyment of getting behind the wheel and going nowhere in particular, which is still possible by the way, to the disgust and dismay of those who want it all to end. And that pure enjoyment is not going away anytime soon, either.
I often talk about the True Believers in my columns, the people with the talent, the ones who do the real work and who make these car companies hum, and I am in awe of what they do, because without their commitment this business would simply implode.
As long as the product remains King, and the True Believers remain true to that mission and continue to believe in it, then I’m confident this business will weather any challenges put forth by the gathering storms to come.
I know there are True Believers in this room as well. You believe in what you do, you’re focused on the job at hand and you’re committed to excellence every step of the way. Often times it isn’t easy, especially because in so many areas of our society today mediocrity has become acceptable, and the notion that you tried is somehow good enough.
Well, don’t buy into that crap. Effort equals results. And bringing a fervor to what you do each and every day will result in success. I am absolutely certain of it.
In a closing personal note, if you were wondering if my passion for the automobile and the business surrounding it has cooled, I’m happy to report that’s not the case.
I still rail against mediocrity with a passion as raw and fueled with outrage as the day Autoextremist.com went live. Living in a world of reduced expectations is simply unacceptable and not an option for the auto industry, or the country for that matter, either. I remain constantly vigilant and on the lookout for signs that this business is sliding back into the bad old habits, when “good enough was good enough” and mediocrity became business as usual.
In case you needed to be reminded: Mediocrity isn’t bliss. And it never will be. This business can do better, much better, and I will continue to call out the unenlightened hordes, continue to chastise the ruthlessly arrogant and the pathologically incompetent, continue to cajole and campaign the capable to do great things, and continue to comment on this business with a passion and an unbridled fervor that show no signs of diminishing anytime soon.
The Power of Words, indeed.
Thank you very much.