Chevy's New Creative Exec: 'We Have a Brand-New Company'

Not Even 'American Revolution' Tagline Is Safe as C-E's Dennis Lim Plans to Refocus Carmaker's Message

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DETROIT (AdAge.com) -- Hiring a new top creative director on its Chevrolet account wasn't a simple task for Campbell-Ewald. The post was vacated in May 2007 and remained open more than a year as the state of the auto industry became even more precarious, losses continued to mount at Chevy owner General Motors Corp., and word circulated that the automaker was looking to slash fees to its agencies.
Dennis Lim
Dennis Lim

During those months, Bill Ludwig, vice chairman-chief creative officer of the Interpublic Group of Cos. shop in Warren, Mich., cycled through 11 candidates before deciding on Dennis Lim for the post earlier this summer. He succeeds Gary Pascoe, who left to return to BBDO Detroit to work on Chrysler after a 16-month stint at Campbell-Ewald.

New in town
Though a seasoned auto-agency executive from TBWA/Chiat/Day, Playa del Rey, Calif., where he headed the Infiniti account as exec creative director and helped to rebrand Nissan's luxury line, Mr. Lim is a newcomer to Detroit.

Mr. Lim told Advertising Age that he plans to relaunch Chevrolet "in a way to get people over the problem with American cars" at a time when the brand has great products. "In a way, we have a brand-new company with Chevrolet," he said, noting that his team and the client are looking at better defining the brand's essence and communicating it in a consistent way for all models. He said he wants more discipline in how each model ad relates to Chevrolet's core.

Mr. Ludwig declined to identify any of the other candidates interested in Chevy's top creative post, but he said two were from outside the U.S. A total of three accepted the job before Mr. Lim, but all reneged for different reasons. The conversations were made tougher by the situation at GM, but Mr. Ludwig said he was upfront with the candidates about the client's recent moves to cut agency fees, reassuring them the shop had survived similar moves over the decades since Chevrolet -- its largest client -- tapped Campbell-Ewald as its agency of record in 1922.

What made Mr. Lim stand out was the "brand book" he had developed for Infiniti, which Mr. Ludwig dubbed "amazingly focused and disciplined." He added that Mr. Lim is very well qualified for the post, as he is a "really strategic thinker with an incredible design sense."

Aware of challenges
Mr. Lim, who evolved from a graphic designer to an art director, is well aware of his challenges on GM's best-selling brand, which accounts for over half the auto giant's vehicle sales annually. As he did at Infiniti, Mr. Lim said he plans to work closely with Chevrolet engineers and designers as a path to unify the look and feel of the brand's products.

Chevrolet has been using "An American Revolution" as its overall brand ad tag since late 2003. But more recently the marketer has adopted sub-themes, including "The car you can't ignore" for the launch of the redone Malibu sedan; "Built to Last. Built to Love" for the Malibu hybrid; and its "Gas-friendly to gas-free" theme for an ad blitz touting its range of fuel solutions.

Mr. Lim said "American Revolution" will be "set aside for a while" until his team can identify Chevy's brand pillars and how people experience the brand.

Chevrolet's Kim Kosak, general director-advertising and sales promotion, said in a recent webcast that the brand will now use "America's Best Truck" in all ads for the Silverado full-size pickup through year's end and "Everything you wished for and then some" in all launch ads for the new Traverse crossover.

Staying on message
She said Chevy's two major messaging priorities for the rest of the year are to focus on fuel efficiency and the brand's quality to "close the gap between consumers' perception of Chevrolet and the reality about our cars and trucks." All Malibu ads will now tout the recent award from consultant J.D. Power and Associates giving it the highest initial-quality ranking among mid-size sedans as decided by surveyed owners.

Chevrolet's sales of new vehicles in the U.S. totaled 1.287 million units in the first eight months of the year, down 17% from the same period in 2007. Its best-selling model, the Silverado, has been hit by the overall slowdown in the category this year.

Campbell-Ewald is also under pressure due to ad cuts GM is making across all brands. The agency just trimmed its staff by an undisclosed number, though the shop said the reduction was far fewer than the 50 laid off in April. A spokesman declined to comment.

Mr. Lim said he plans only a few changes at Campbell-Ewald. He'll pick a team of three people who will work on a unified idea for Chevrolet with a consistent visual and language tone. He will also call daily meetings for two weeks of all the Chevy creative teams to "infect each other with ideas" for the crucial Camaro launch next year.

Mr. Lim started his ad career at Ketchum, San Francisco, where he was part of the team that launched Acura for Honda. He also labored as a creative director launching Saturn at Hal Riney & Partners and worked on Apple during his 10 years at BBDO West.

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