By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. When I became tired of what the ad biz had become seventeen years ago, and tired of the sycophants, the ass kissers, the spineless weasels and the other two-bit players who had turned what was once a pretty interesting profession into a vapid wasteland, I knew I had to do something different. I had also grown tired of seeing the auto business – as practiced here in Detroit - sink further into the Abyss of risk-avoidance-driven mediocrity, and watching legions of so-called "executives" make horrendous, piss-poor decisions day after day on behalf of their respective auto companies.
As I watched the carnage unfold around me, I knew that something had to be said by someone who had firsthand knowledge of what was going on - someone who was in the trenches and on the front lines of the ongoing battle - and that someone turned out to be me.
And Autoextremist.com became my forum to say it.
As some of you insiders may know, Autoextremist originally was a concept I had for a new car magazine back in 1986. The print version of Autoextremist was going to target hard-core enthusiasts, while telling it like it is with a distinctive, combative style. It would also be the first enthusiast car publication that wouldn’t accept advertising.
The state of the enthusiast car mags back then was a dismal parade of sameness that left me cold, and I was determined to breathe some life into the genre (and it is different today, how? –WG). But my ad career got in the way, and by the time I looked up it was the late spring of 1999, and I knew that if I didn’t do it then, I’d never do it - so the time was finally right for Autoextremist. The Internet, of course, would replace the print magazine idea, but the essence of my original manifesto written back in 1986 remained unchanged.
And that's how this publication and "The High-Octane Truth" came about, whether people were ready for it or not. A lot has changed about this business in the ensuing years but as I said a few weeks ago, then again, a lot hasn’t.
I am certain of one thing, however, and that is my set of fundamental beliefs about this business hasn’t changed. I thought it would be a good time to reiterate what those beliefs are today; where I’m coming from, how I look at things and why I say the things I do.
I believe that the business of designing, building, engineering, marketing and advertising cars and trucks should begin with one simple premise - the Product is King - and everything else has to flow from that fundamental fact. Cars and trucks should be exciting to look at, fun to drive, flat-out desirable and worth owning in all respects. If you (as an individual or a company) forget that fact, you will fail.
I believe people whose cumulative marketing experience basically consists of 1.) An MBA combined with 2.) A stint at the zone level (with the added "benefit" of P&G indoctrination -WG) and 3. Being part of a rotational executive "rounding" stint through the system, shouldn't automatically be qualified to get near the serious business of marketing and advertising cars, let alone be able to tell an ad agency what's good or not good about an ad campaign that has just been worked on for the last 47 days straight.
I believe that car company executives whose first order of business is to cover their own asses and then shamelessly promote themselves the rest of the time - while bringing absolutely nothing positive to the job at hand - should be encouraged to take that long "break" they keep droning on about in off-the-record moments. Please do us all a favor - and leave now.
I believe that a rampant, "let's not offend anyone" mentality taints every decision made by almost every car executive (yes, there are a few brilliant exceptions) working in the business today. (By the way Lowe’s called, backbones are on special today, Aisle 6.)
I believe that the typical car company executive's reckless and utter disdain for anything the least bit creative or provocative - while at the same time endorsing a process that consistently "dumbs down" the advertising and the product itself with a series of debilitating steps and hand-wringing meetings - directly results in the churning out of an endless stream of cars and trucks that are too often nothing more than monuments to tedium, mediocrity and bad management. Back then I called it "engineering to the lowest common denominator" - and it still stinks.
I believe that politics permeates every decision in the car business down to the very last detail, ensuring that all butts are "covered" and that no one is left "exposed" to any ugly consequences. The business is still populated by people more worried about what their political standing "entitles" them to than about bringing to the table an attitude of "what can I do?" or "how can we make it better?" Accountability? Maybe that can be found in Aisle 6 too.
I believe - and this is etched in stone - that whenever the shit hits the fan and there is the least bit of advertising or marketing or product controversy, a car company will always do the wrong thing, and then turn around and blame the agency or a supplier for their predicament at the drop of a hat. You can take that one to the bank.
I believe that the ad agency side of the business has strayed as far away from being a creative environment as you can get - short of working airport security. In many cases, it has deteriorated into a constant battle between The Wimps and The Twerps, people who are intent on taking over the agency and turning it into a cesspool of "Yes Men" and "Yes Women" who are more concerned with their political futures and the "process" than about working on great advertising and marketing.
I believe that ad agencies have forgotten what their mission is, because they're spending 90% of their time, money, resources and effort on everything else under the sun except actually trying to make great advertising. And I believe that, in most cases, their clients are directly responsible for this revolting development - and that they ultimately get the advertising they deserve because of it.
I believe that runaway complacency on both sides (car companies and their ad agencies), combined with an atmosphere corrupted by an absolutely suffocating fear of taking any kind of risk (or standing behind it once you do), is killing the chance to get great work produced. Don’t think that’s the case? Take a look at the dismal state of car advertising today.
I believe that in too many cases in this business bad people are making bad decisions negatively affecting good people who know better, people who have been shuffled off to the side for political "considerations" (i.e., they have a backbone and a point of view - and they're not afraid to share it).
I believe that instead of a joyful celebration of the indefatigable nature of the American Spirit and the role the automobile has had, continues to have, and always will play, the business has become nothing but a pathetic caricature of itself - complete with bad actors and even worse props.
I believe that the glaring sameness of the so-called “enthusiast” car mags is still there and it’s still highly annoying. And there’s no denying that the days for the hard-copy print mags are severely numbered, and when the shakeout finally comes, it will be ugly.
I believe the state of automotive journalism has never been as weak as it is right now. There are too few writers worth going out of your way to bother with right now, and that’s a flat-out disgrace. Automotive journalism (yes, of course there are notable exceptions) has devolved into a thinly disguised pay-to-play-for-access game. And it’s embarrassing.
There are some positives in this business today, thankfully. But there are lingering issues too.
As for the car biz itself, is it still about the Product? Absolutely. More so today than ever before. But if you don’t have the accurate, enticing and properly funded marketing firepower to put behind a new product, then it doesn’t matter how good it is - it will be forgotten 120 days after its launch in this oversaturated automotive market we live in.
As for the execs making key decisions about the marketing and advertising at the car companies nowadays, I still see woefully underqualified individuals being given the reins on major marketing decisions, and it’s still baffling.
Are auto execs any more willing to take a stand these days? It’s intermittent when it happens, but there’s some noticeable movement in the right direction at least. But it’s not nearly enough. And I’m sure a search party will have to be organized to find executives with backbones to shore up the ranks.
As for those “lowest-common-denominator” product decisions, I’m thankfully seeing that mentality fade into the woodwork. Detroit is creating some excellent new products right now, but getting people to care about them is an entirely different story altogether.
I still believe leaving major product and marketing decisions in the hands of a few focus groups is a dangerous practice and a monumental waste of time and money. And it’s still being done. It has been proven time and time again that focus groups are, at best, inconsistent if not inaccurate barometers – and it’s a crime. After all, the only people actually listened to in these focus groups are the ones who agree with the client's preconceived mindset to begin with, which makes the whole process a colossal waste of time and money.
Politics and politically charged decisions still hold sway over these companies to a degree, some less than others, fortunately. As for accountability, it’s still in exceedingly short supply.
As for the whole ad agency vs. client thing, the profitability of the advertising business is being squeezed down to next to nothing, leaving agencies to fight over scraps while clients display the loyalty of your average fair-weather sports fan, In other words, the state of the ad biz when it comes to the auto industry is beyond pathetic. It’s no wonder that ad agencies have forgotten what their basic mission is - which is to deliver the best, most provocative communications on behalf of their clients that they can muster - in this toxic environment. Do clients still get the advertising they deserve because of it? Yes.
As for those aforementioned legions of Wimps and Twerps and “Yes Men” and “Yes Women” they’re all still present and accounted for – on both sides of the ball. I know, because some of the people who were shoveling shit in this town when I was still in the ad biz are still doing it today. And it’s unconscionable.
As for bad people making bad decisions negatively affecting good people who know better in this business, same as it ever was, unfortunately.
And what about that whole “joyful celebration of the indefatigable nature of the American Spirit and the role the automobile has had, continues to have, and always will play...” thing? Well, let’s just say that it’s a work in progress.
That “Detroit” finally got product religion and is saying and doing all of the right things is commendable, but there’s still the lingering fear that this business as practiced here will slip back into bad old habits at any given moment. Those shining beacons of product light and creativity are still threatened by churning storm clouds defined by a “three steps forward, five back” cadence of rampant mediocrity. And that is sobering.
Now well into our eighteenth year of Autoextremist.com, I am proud to say that we still take you "behind the curtain" to give you an up-close look at the Wizards, the Dullards and everyone else in between in this business. I still say what the others are only thinking (or whispering) in deep background, or “off-the-record” conversations, and I will continue to do so. And this publication will continue to "influence the influencers" every single week, even though they're loathe to admit it.
Delivering The Truth, The Whole Truth... and absolutely nothing but The High-Octane Truth has been an exhilarating ride.
Write Hard, Die Free indeed.
And that's the High-Octane Truth for this week.
The Autoextremist - Rants
By Peter M. De Lorenzo