By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. As the death march marked by recriminations and rancor – aka this year’s Presidential election – stumbled to its inevitable ugly close, it’s nice to know that the citizens of this country still actually can get off of their collective asses and go out and vote, at least for the most part anyway. After this tedious and miserable excuse for a political campaign, it’s the least we can do.
The auto business has some frightening similarities to our political process, because it plays out in revealing and at times ugly sound bites as executives who always seem to be running for – or from – something maneuver their way across the political landscape populated by combative factions made up of the consumer, the media and the various government agendas involved. And the maneuverings – and the whining – from these companies and their executives are just as cutthroat and at times stupid as the political Shit Show we just endured.
Everyone seems to be spinning something in the car business, whether it’s Carlos Ghosn setting aside his “I’m The King Of The World” posture long enough to admit that things aren’t all that rosy in Nissan-Renault (and now Mitsubishi) land, but that he will fix things posthaste and he will reign supreme again in no time, even though it’s all in his own mind; or the Japanese auto executives who are singing the blues because their profits are down, which means they haven’t been manipulating the yen enough as in past campaigns. No one’s exactly feeling sorry for them, that’s for sure.
Then there are the American executives from Ford and GM who are perpetually pissed off because they feel that all they get from the Wall Street slicksters are condescending pats on the head and a “maybe next time” kiss-off as their stock prices languish in the basement. They have a right to be furious but will it change anything? No, of course not. Besides, the days of fantasy stock prices for auto stocks are over, unless you count the smoke-and-mirrors-fueled infatuation that Wall Street has for Tesla.
And of course the Germans are a swirling maelstrom of irrational exuberance and denial unto themselves, with a calculated arrogance that has actually grown since the biggest cheating scandal in automotive history was perpetrated on the public by the VW Group. These guys never got the memo that there are other car companies doing worthwhile work out there, and they continue to conduct themselves as if the world revolves around them, and that whatever it is they’re doing is better than everyone else, even though those days have long since passed. Oh well, we still have the tedious Dieter Zetsche munching on his press clippings, and the other executives from BMW and the VW Group drone on, acting as if their prevailing mantra is "What, us worry?"
Then there’s Sergio, the omnipresent “G.O.A.T” who is still trying to spin the yarn that the earth is flat and that FCA can survive by selling Jeeps and pickups alone. And that “it won’t be long now!” until FCA reaches the mountaintop. (Well, as soon as he can sell 70,000 Alfa Romeos a year and oh by the way, find a technically savvy, cash-rich partner that will bail his ass out. Ah well, it’s always the “little” details that tend to sink Marchionne.) But I digress.
Though some pundits have suggested that this latest political campaign was completely different and that it will mark a permanent shift in our national landscape, I am not so sure. Judging by the various stumblebum “surrogates” and other hangers-on heard from and who are now poised to move into place, I’m pretty sure we’ll all be right back in this mess four years from now.
Where does that leave the auto industry? Yes, change is coming, much of it revolving around the shift to electrification over the next decade. And the heavy hand of the government is going to continue as well. That will be augmented by the “Smelly Car” Future when the idyllic vision for car-sharing services turns into the ugly reality of dingy, dirty, used-up cars careening around with grim-faced drivers gripping the wheel with the windows down, hoping the next car they signed up for is better in some way, or at least doesn’t have the faint odor of dried-up puke that has been temporarily - but not really - Febrezed into submission. Oh joy.
And the Autonomous Future is coming, too, at least in Northern California, Washington, D.C., and a few other major cities, while the rest of the country shrugs its shoulders and goes on about its business. So there’s that.
But the tone and tenor of this business isn’t going to change anytime soon. The endless whining will continue unabated, saviors and sycophants will continue their political dance of futility inside these companies, and the pitchfork-wielding hordes in the vast gray middle that generate much of the inertia that fuels these companies will stay blissfully entrenched in their silos, content with the notion that mediocrity – at least for some – is bliss.
No, the future isn’t going to be all that different when it comes right down to it. Oh sure, there may be a few glaring surface-oriented changes, some bigger than others, but the fundamental realities will remain intact.
In fact, the High-Octane Truths about this business that I have written about for going on eighteen years will be as vivid - and accurate - as ever. To wit…
High-Octane Truth No. 1: The business of designing, building, engineering, marketing and advertising cars and trucks, at least successfully, will continue to hinge on one simple premise - the Product is King - and everything must 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. Companies that forget that will be relegated to the Giant Dustbin of Mediocrity.
High-Octane Truth No. 2: 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.
High-Octane Truth No. 3: Inexperienced people in marketing can do irreparable damage to a brand. People whose cumulative marketing experience basically consists of a.) An MBA combined with b.) A stint of “air-selling” at a play school tech start-up or c.) 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.
High-Octane Truth No. 4: 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.)
High-Octane Truth No. 5: 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. Way back when I called it "engineering to the lowest common denominator" - and it stinks to this day.
High-Octane Truth No. 6: Politics and political maneuvering permeate 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.
High-Octane Truth No. 7: It is a time-honored adage in this business – in fact it’s 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. This won’t change even when we enter the TransPod era.
High-Octane Truth No. 8: As an ad industry veteran I’m sad to report 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.
High-Octane Truth No. 9: The ugly reality is 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 create great advertising. In most cases their clients are directly responsible for this revolting development, and those clients ultimately get the advertising they deserve because of it.
High-Octane Truth No. 10: 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 much of car advertising today. (Again, there are exceptions, thankfully.)
High-Octane Truth No. 11: It’s a stone cold fact 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).
High-Octane Truth No. 12: Far from 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.
High-Octane Truth No. 13: The glaring sameness of the so-called “enthusiast” car publications is mind numbing and highly annoying. 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.
High-Octane Truth No. 14: 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.
High-Octane Truth No. 15: The more a car executive insists that he or she has it “goin’ on” the greater the likelihood that things will go in the opposite direction in a hurry. It’s just the way of the automotive world and it’s amazing to me that there doesn’t seem to be any accrued knowledge when it comes to this phenomenon. But these executives get on a roll and strange things happen to their minds. They start believing their press clippings and actually start to think that the particular run they’re on is going to last forever. This just in: It never does. Mistakes are made. Recalls hit. And in some cases, even calculated fraud is undertaken. It’s a giant, spinning bowl of Not Good.
So after electrification hits, and the “Smelly Car” and “Autonomous” futures arrive, there will still be geniuses and idiots, saviors and sycophants, and spineless weasels and True Believers toiling in this business.
And it will remain a meteoric rocket ride well into the distant future, whether it’s churning out TransPods by then, or hopefully something much better.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
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