August 17, 2011
Mr. Ewanick’s Moon Shot.
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. (Posted 8/16, 4:30 p.m.) Joel Ewanick, GM’s Global Chief Marketing Officer, wants GM to be the next Apple. Really. Before you spit out your cornflakes, what does he mean, exactly?
"We understand our direct competitors are Toyota, Volkswagen, Hyundai – a very, a very strong competitor, one that I know well and is going to be very formidable – and Ford, obviously," Ewanick commented last week as reported by Rich Thomaselli, from AdAge. "But it's time to clearly differentiate our brand and align closer to a true global brand like an Apple. It's time for an automotive company to step out and address consumers and their needs in a way that's never been done before."
Ewanick wants GM to become the essence of Apple, the ultra-contemporary, ultra-hip bastion of consumer idolatry, the maker of the kind of quintessential, gotta have products that people just can’t get enough of. But as I said to reporter Thomaselli in a follow-up interview: "I think it's a noble goal but the short answer is no, it's not doable in the climate we exist in. Automobiles just don't have the broad appeal that the latest tech products do."
There, I said it. As much as I’ve been immersed in this business since I was a kid and as much as this town and this region are buried in it up to our collective eyeballs 24 hours a day, the reality is that this is a different time and a different era. And as much as I love cars and everything associated with this industry, it’s clear to me that our culture has been fundamentally altered by the digital revolution, and the power of instant connection and gratification manifested in the latest consumer electronic devices hold more sway than the latest automotive machines do for most people.
That’s just the new reality.
Not that I don’t necessarily agree with Ewanick’s aspirational goals. After all, you have to set targets in this business and Joel is certainly sharp enough to know that a good quote or an extravagant media play is worth a lot. That has been his professional “M.O.” and trademark throughout his advertising and marketing career, and when all is said and done this image business is all about, remarkably enough, uh, image.
But I also know that Joel has found this Detroit car company advertising “thing” to be a totally different animal existing on a planet unto itself. And it always hasn’t worked out nearly as well as he expected it would. He and the hand-picked ad agencies that he brought in – in particular Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, the San Francisco agency who now is charged with powering Chevrolet’s image, and Fallon, the Minneapolis-based agency now working on Cadillac – have found these accounts to be tough-sledding, to put it mildly, and the work reflects it.
Wildly inconsistent – as Ewanick has openly admitted – these agencies have struggled to gain their footing, which, as someone who has toiled away in the past in this business and in this town for over two decades (as well as doing stints in New York/L.A.), I find to be amusing and more than a little ironic. Because the constant refrain heard during my career was that ad agencies in Detroit – and the people who work there – were somehow inferior to the “real” ad agencies in New York or L.A. or San Francisco, or anywhere else for that matter. Which wasn’t true, by the way, but since there has never been any shortage of smug arrogance practiced in the ad biz, it was part and parcel of the game that was played nonetheless.
And now that the “real” agencies have been brought in by Ewanick to come to the rescue and fix what ails GM image-wise – particularly when it comes to Chevrolet and Cadillac – the fact that it hasn’t been all roses and rainbows doesn’t surprise me or anyone who has worked in the ad biz in this town in the least.
Ewanick has graded his agencies as doing “B” and “C” work of late, with an occasional “A” thrown in when warranted. And I’ve rated these ad agencies as doing “B” work initially way back when. But now? I rate Fallon as a “D -” because other than an occasional nice ad execution for the “V” cars I can’t for the life of me figure out what Cadillac is saying or doing. And I reserve a hard “C” to Goodby, because the work is so wildly inconsistent (when it’s bad it’s really annoying), and the fact that “Chevy Runs Deep” is not my favorite tag line by a long shot.
Both of these agencies have found their assignments to be extremely difficult. They have discovered that it’s one thing to get enamored with the history surrounding these great brands and get fired-up about working on them, but it’s quite another to be tasked with moving the needle for these brands in the grand media landscape out there, day after day. As Jerry McGuire once famously said, “It’s an up-at-dawn, pride swallowing siege…” and I can’t think of a phrase that more accurately describes what it’s really like to be immersed in it. It’s a relentless, 24-hours-a-day grind that is not for the faint of heart.
I’ve said it countless times before and I’ll probably say it countless times again before I shuffle off this mortal coil, but this business as practiced in this town is a state of mind as much as it is an alternative universe. I’ve seen some of the most credentialed marketing people in the world throw their hands up in disgust and frustration and eventually watch them walk away, broken and washed out of the business because they couldn’t handle it here.
I should clearly point out that Joel Ewanick isn’t one of them and he can handle things just fine, but I also know he’s found it to be much more difficult and challenging than he even imagined it would be.
When you have great brands whose marketing has been powered by a lethal cocktail of inertia, rampant egos, financial chaos and flat-out whimsical notions for basically, well, forever, turning things around isn’t possible, at least completely. Instead it’s a never-ending quest that can’t be finished. You can expect to achieve little gains and record some victories great and small, but you can also expect to go 0 for 33 more times than you care to count or admit, too.
Saying he wants GM to be like Apple or even the “next” Apple is Joel Ewanick’s moon shot. I get that. And it certainly makes for pithy headlines and copy. But the automobile culture that we’re so immersed in around these parts isn’t the focal point of our Starbucks Nation of zombie consumers any longer or at least not nearly as much as it once was back in its heyday. This industry has been replaced by the instantaneous gratification hordes, and there’s no turning back.
Is the auto industry as we know it going to fold its tent and fade away in the gathering mist? No, of course not. This business is leaner, meaner, more contemporary and relevant than it has been in decades.
But playing in the Applesphere?
All due respect to Mr. Ewanick, but it’s just notgonnahappen.com.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
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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