By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. The advertising business is an acquired taste. On the one hand it can be a heady pursuit brimming with creative passion and at times memorable art, on the other hand it can be akin to an “up at dawn, pride-swallowing siege,” as Cameron Crowe so eloquently put it in Jerry McGuire. Crowe’s character wasn’t talking about the ad biz when he uttered that line, but it’s still perfectly appropriate.
The battle between clients (aka The Suits) and their ad agencies has been going on since the first time someone asked for help in promoting a product or place of business way back when.
The client/ad agency relationship is fraught with peril almost from the get-go, and how could it not be? When clients admit (albeit reluctantly) that they need help in promoting their product, an ad agency has a very narrow window of opportunity to help mold the strategy, conceptualize the message and then execute the communications to the agreed-upon strategy.
Yes, these days it all seems much more complicated because of the various “social” conceits and real world, experiential product activations that have to be taken into account, and the fact that “ad agency” is a quaint notion from yesterday what with the massive, global media conglomerates that dominate communications in today’s world. But the fundamentals of the business haven’t changed one bit, because it’s up to the agency (in whatever form that takes) to come up with a compelling piece of communication that presents and projects the client’s product in the best possible light.
Speaking of narrow windows of opportunity, clients and their communications agencies only get along for fleeting moments in time. When things are going swimmingly well, the agencies are considered clients’ trusted marketing “partners” and are treated with a modicum of respect. But when things go wrong it takes only about a nanosecond for clients to throw their communications agencies under the bus and downgrade the relationship to one of company and “vendor.”
I was reminded of this phenomenon on Monday when it was announced that FCA had fired DDB Chicago, its advertising agency of record for Alfa Romeo. Remember that Sergio Marchionne’s strategic “plan” for Alfa Romeo has been an abject fantasy since he first mentioned the name of the venerable Italian brand eight years ago. The promise of multiple Alfa Romeo products arriving on these shores across many segments was pounded into Fiat dealers and the media alike with equal bombast. Alfa Romeo would be Marchionne’s “gift” to those Fiat dealers who believed in the mission enough to invest in brick and mortar, and they would be swimming in Alfas to sell – with untold profits – by 2018. In fact, The Great Sergio insisted emphatically that Alfa Romeo would be the next Audi in the U.S. market.
Needless to say, we all know how that worked out. Alfa has been the biggest nonstarter this industry has experienced in years. The severely limited-production Alfa Romeo 4C sports car wasn’t enough to even register on enthusiast radar screens beyond the obligatory blather from the fanboy websites. And the Next Great Hope for Fiat dealers naïve enough to still buy into Marchionne’s dream scenario for the Alfa Romeo brand is the new Giulia sedan, a machine that won’t even arrive in significant numbers until next year, at the earliest.
It’s no surprise that Marchionne is feeling blue these days, what with everything coming apart at the seams as he frantically beats the bushes for suitable partners for the floundering FCA business enterprise. And the glaring embarrassment of Alfa Romeo is just adding to his melancholy, so in firing the ad agency he found a convenient scapegoat to assign blame to (DDB Chicago will retain the Jeep work), even though he never had a strategic plan for the brand that was even remotely deliverable.
But it seems to be par for Marchionne’s course of late. He never replaced his Chief PR minion – Gaulberto Ranieri – after summarily dismissing him; instead he has decided to control the PR function himself, with all of the residual nightmares that has created. And now he’s apparently adding Alfa Romeo advertising to the list of all he surveys. Run for your lives, kids.
In other advertising news, we were waiting with great anticipation to see how Hyundai would launch the new Genesis luxury brand. The Genesis products – the G80 and G90 sedans – look to be formidable, with a level of standard equipment and customer coddling that will shake up the industry, while priced for thousands less than the comparable competition from Audi, BMW, Cadillac, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz (see last week’s On The Table –WG). This is what amounts to a dream assignment for any ad person, a grand opportunity to craft an image from scratch for an ultra-competitive product aimed at one of the most hotly contested – and profitable – segments in the industry.
And today, the Genesis brand wranglers fired their first communication volley in the form of a mission statement (sort of) splashed across multiple media platforms:
We’re not here to talk about a car. Which may seem strange coming from a car company. We’re here to talk about respect. The kind of respect that has the humility to honor others. The confidence to put the spotlight on someone else and to stand for something bigger than ourselves. Respect is in our culture, it’s who we are. We respect the competition, because it brings out our very best. We respect design and creativity, they remind us that we are unique beings, whose creations make a difference. We respect time, because we know it’s the most valuable thing humans possess. Respect is what compelled us to not just build a brand to be number one, but to build a brand to make sure you are.
In a world scrambling to put itself first, we believe respect is a breath of fresh luxury.
My first impression? Yikes. Besides the fact that it’s disjointed and scattered, meandering around to make points that aren’t really memorable or interesting, I couldn’t decide if I was reading a piece of achingly precious ad copy that was trying too hard or an intro to a Human Resources procedural manual.
Remember, the introduction of the Genesis brand is the biggest product launch in the luxury space that this industry has experienced in a long, long time. You have to go back to when Toyota introduced Lexus to come up with an equivalent moment. And by all accounts these new machines will be worthy and formidable competitors by every measure, let alone factoring the value component.
And this is what they come up with?
One of my pet peeves in the ad biz is when product positioning lines or statements see the light of day in the advertising itself. That’s not supposed to happen. It’s kind of like going to an art show and seeing signs placed around the art directing you as to how you should feel when looking at it.
In the case of this Genesis brand statement, it’s so matter of fact and uninspiring that it’s borderline tedious. As Chris Rock says, that ain’t right. Not only that, the copy doesn’t create anticipation or project the kind of compelling imagery that promises a piece of impending greatness. Consumers should feel jacked when reading about this car. As in: I. Want. One. Where is the want in this treatise? Nowhere to be found, I’m afraid.
And the closing? “…we believe respect is a breath of fresh luxury.” Not heroic in the least, which only adds insult to the injury. Or, as WordGirl put it, a hack line of the first order. I concur.
I have gone on record as saying that the new Genesis will prove to be a star in this market. It’s just too bad that the first communication volley for the brand is not worthy of the car itself.
What a blown opportunity.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.