October 17, 2012
Memo to Mr. Ferguson: Watch your back.
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
(Posted 10/16, 12:00 p.m.) Detroit. Since Robert Ferguson has been tapped by Dan “Captain Queeg” Akerson* to run the global marketing effort for Cadillac, I think it would be appropriate to give him a few tips. I know, I know, he insists that he is eminently qualified for this position (See this week’s “On The Table” – Ed.) and he bristles at the suggestion that he’s not, but trust me, he most certainly isn’t and there are a few things he needs to be aware of before taking the reins.
So, without further ado, Mr. Ferguson, here are a few things to contemplate.
Your first order of business? Like any car company, GM marketing is made up of fiefdoms with different qualifications and agendas. Some are remnants of previous regimes – the old-school “lifers” – some are recent additions, and some are actually good at what they do but are decidedly tentative knowing that at any moment things could blow up. Especially given Akerson’s penchant for blowing up, which has now become his signature management style.
Believe it or not, some of those people assigned to Cadillac have zero interest in seeing you succeed, Mr. Ferguson. As a matter of fact they will go out of their way to make sure you don’t, when given the opportunity. Why? Because they like things the way they are and they don’t like change, Akerson or no, and they will hold to their beliefs and make things miserable for you.
Look at what happened to former GM CMO Joel Ewanick. (The difference being, of course, that Joel was actually qualified for the position, as opposed to being “gifted” the position by one of your boss’s dictates.) Ewanick tried to yank GM marketing out of the 20th century before the 21st century was a quarter of the way over, and the old guard didn’t like it one bit. So they went out of their way to make his life miserable along the way and eventually succeeded in having him jettisoned. Don’t think that will happen to you, especially after Akerson has anointed you? Think again.
Get to know your ad agency. Quick. Ad agencies are different. They are involved in the philosophical development and the creative projection of your brand. That’s some serious strategic shit, to put a finer point on it. They’re not suppliers or vendors (see below), instead they are true partners in every sense of the word. That means that when things go awry you can’t just throw your agency under the bus and gin-up another creative entity to do your bidding. It doesn’t work that way. You’re the student here, Ferguson. Go out of your way to learn who the key players in your agency are, understand their capabilities and realize that the ultimate measure of your on-the-job performance is in their hands. Oh, and one more thing? Operate under the assumption that you don’t know a damn thing about what constitutes good advertising, and you’ll be much better off. (I know you won’t, of course, because it’s clear you have the makings of an instant know-it-all when it comes to all things marketing and advertising, but don’t say that you weren’t warned.)
Another part of understanding your new role is to understand how this town really works. The “Detroit Way” is for the car companies to call key suppliers “partners” and have lovefests professing their undying loyalty and fealty. This goes on throughout this town, and it’s all well and good until a manufacturer goes off of the rails and rapes a key supplier for information and/or technological knowledge that will give them a competitive advantage, and then either hands it to another supplier to execute, takes it in-house or bids it out. At that point the kumbaya partnership dissolves into a contentious relationship between the manufacturer and the “supplier” or “vendor." It’s a bitter, sleazy, shitty fact of life in this town. And though it usually happens on the engineering or technical side, it happens with ad agencies as well.
Only with ad agencies it’s more about clients abruptly going off strategy at the last possible minute or going off half-cocked in the pursuit of some flavor of the moment that will lead to nowhere good. This is the exact instant when clients stop listening and bad juju happens. And then they start hammering their ad agencies while reminding them that they’re merely hired hands. It usually doesn’t go well after that. The lesson here? The moment you start treating your ad agencies like vendors is the moment you’ll lose their trust. (And in spite of your luminous life perspective that you’re so proud of, trust me, you won’t be any different.)
Listen to the True Believers. Better yet, listen, period. I know since you’re the global head of Cadillac I’m sure you have some painfully naïve notion that the U.S. market doesn’t really matter, that Captain Queeg’s marching orders are for you to conquer China and drive profitability for the Cadillac brand that way. Like buttah, right? Well, guess what? If Cadillac doesn’t get feistier and more competitive in this market you may not have to worry about how it does in China or anywhere else for that matter. Unless and until Cadillac becomes a legitimate, top-of-mind contender with Audi, BMW, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz – instead of America’s version of a luxury car – you’re not going anywhere.
Listen to everybody associated with Cadillac – most important the True Believers in Design and Engineering – because this just in: they know what Cadillac is and understand its true, untapped potential.
And don’t be like your boss, who thinks he knows everything about everything and who views dealers as necessary evils. Go out and meet as many dealers as you can. Listen to their concerns and understand that if they’re not buying what you’re selling then nobody will. Sounds painfully simple, right? But I’ve lost count of the number of executives with no practical automotive experience – like you – who have failed to grasp that concept.
Oh and one more thing, your boss knows zero about marketing and advertising. Make that less than zero. Combine that with what you know about it and we’re talking a giant bowl of Not Good, with a chaser of day-old cold coffee.
Be that as it may, he won’t hesitate to cut you off at the knees for transgressions both real and imagined because that is, after all, who he is. So watch your back. And beware of executives not connected with the product disciplines who offer to “help” you. Trust me, they’re not there to help you, they’re there to make sure you’re doing Dan’s bidding and their “help” will send you down the Primrose Path of Nowhere Good.
Good luck. You’ll need it.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
*I stopped using “Lt. Dan” long ago when referring to GM’s Dan Akerson because it was an insult to one of the screen’s most endearing characters in Forest Gump. Seeing as Akerson believes he is running a tight ship – while running GM right into the ground – I am debuting the new moniker for him with this column. Don’t know who Captain Queeg is? Look up The Caine Mutiny. Or watch this.
See another live episode of "Autoline After Hours" with hosts John McElroy, from Autoline Detroit, and Peter De Lorenzo, The Autoextremist, and guests this Thursday evening, at 7:00PM EDT at www.autolinedetroit.tv.
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