Cadillac's Craig Bierley: Great Communications is 'Missing Ingredient' for GM's Luxury Brand

Auto Vet Talks About Agency Pitch, Market Strategy for New CTS

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General Motors' Cadillac boasts stylish new cars such as the 2014 CTS sedan, double-digit sales growth and the heritage of being the quintessential American luxury brand. But what it lacks is knowing how to strike the right tone in communications, and how to change consumer perceptions of the brand, said Craig Bierley, who was promoted to advertising director in February.

Craig Bierley
Craig Bierley

Mr. Bierley, a 22-year GM veteran who earlier in his career oversaw advertising for GM's Buick-GMC division, was one of the key decision-makers in the review for Cadillac's $250 million creative business in the U.S. and Canada. The auto brand has had a lot of agency changes over the past few years, shuttling from Boston-based Modernista to BBH, New York to where it's currently parked at Fallon in Minneapolis.

This pitch pits the incumbent shop against Omnicom Group's DDB in Chicago, and teams from Interpublic Group of Cos. and Publicis Groupe. The latter two holding companies that are permitted to present a team approach already have significant spots on GM's roster, handling a variety of assignments for different car brands. The quartet of contenders completed a final round of presentations earlier this month at the Manhattan offices of Carat, Cadillac's media agency of record. A winner will be announced sometime in June. It was not a required part of the brief from the carmaker to agencies, but they were allowed to pitch global ad campaigns.

That detail could provide a clue into where the Cadillac brand is headed in the future -- namely Asia. Currently Caddy generates two-thirds of its volume in the U.S. but is growing fast in China. Cadillac's 2013 sales were up a whopping 37% through April, according to the Automotive News Data Center.

Sitting in a hotel coffee shop in New York last week, Mr. Bierley chatted with Ad Age about the pitch and plans for marketing the new Cadillac CTS.

Ad Age: What was the impetus behind launching an agency review?

Mr. Bierley: It really isn't an indictment of Fallon. It's us saying, 'Let's be absolutely certain we're bringing to bear the absolute best resources we can to do this job.' The missing ingredient for us? We think the products stand really well on their own. What will propel us to greatness is the communications we deliver that message with. … Now is the time for us to evaluate what we're doing from a creative standpoint and from a strategy standpoint, and see how we get to the next level. Where's the accelerant, beyond just product, to really change the way people think about this brand?

Ad Age: What was the specific assignment?

Mr. Bierley: Rather than saying, 'how would you market Cadillac?' we said, 'show us the launch campaign for the new CTS.' They all did it in a very smart way. …Show us the [CTS] launch, show us what your global capabilities are, show us who the target customer is and talk to us about the Cadillac 'voice.'

Ad Age: Anybody knock it out of the park a la Don Draper with the Kodak Carousel?

Mr. Bierley: They all did really well. …I was impressed with the level of effort, hard work and determination. I was reassured by the fact that the consumer insights, and the way they see our customer, generally coalesced around a single theme. Nobody was out in left field.

Ad Age: Could we see Cadillac launch a single global campaign?

Mr. Bierley: A few of them tested their ideas globally. They captured insights from other countries around the world. Right now, based on our footprint, you could pretty much do that by going to Russia, China and the Middle East. If we can get there, great. The world's a small place. If you're a businessman, and you live in Los Angeles, and you go to China and see Cadillac communications that have nothing to do with what they are here, that creates this dissonance in consumers' minds about what Cadillac actually stands for.

Ad Age: Do the parameters give the global holding companies [Interpublic and Publicis Groupe] an edge?

Mr. Bierley: In the long run, we're looking at managing this business on a much more global scale. That's why my boss, Bob Ferguson, is VP-global Cadillac. One of the things we asked each of these agencies to give us a point of view on was their global capabilities, how they'd help us manage through a global enterprise, how they'd work collaboratively with other agencies, and how'd they recommend we structure all that. …If we can figure out a global platform, a set of consumer insights that are universal truths that apply everywhere, all the better.

Ad Age: Cadillac uses Leo Burnett in the Middle East and McCann-Erickson in China. We know those accounts are not part of this review. But could there be a global agency consolidation down the road?

Mr. Bierley: We haven't figured that out yet. We asked them to help us think through the best way to operate.

Ad Age: You say the longer, leaner CTS will be 200 pounds lighter than the BMW 5 series. Why does that matter?

Mr. Bierley: The CTS is a clean sheet of paper. It is 200 pounds lighter than the 5 series. That matters. That matters in terms of its agility and quickness and how fast it goes. That's like a full-grown man not sitting in the car every time you go anywhere.

Ad Age: Will the new CTS take a conquest strategy toward German luxury competitors such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz?

Mr. Bierley: We're looking to attract new buyers to Cadillac. With the ATS, three out of every four new buyers are new to Cadillac. …The CTS will drive a substantial portion of its business from the current CTS. At the same time, we think we have real legit shot to pull, or conquest, business from the Europeans.

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