Can Arnell the Designer Rescue Chrysler?

Ad Guru Aims to Bring Automaker Innovation, Says It's Not About Celine

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NEW YORK ( -- You can call Peter Arnell's return to Chrysler, the scene of his agency's biggest blowup, a lot of things. Just don't call it a chance for redemption.

That the man who's won raves for reworking Pepsi cans and bottles and conjuring a fashionable fire extinguisher for Home Depot is taking on a C-level design role at Chrysler opens a new chapter in Mr. Arnell's rags-to-riches, fat-to-slim, celebrity-drenched biography. But rather than look at it as a chance to make good at the automaker that let his agency go in the aftermath of a 2003 ad campaign starring Celine Dion, he insists the post is about solidifying his reputation in a community that maybe hasn't taken him as seriously as he'd like.
Peter Arnell, acting chief innovation officer of Chrysler
Peter Arnell, acting chief innovation officer of Chrysler
The hope for Chrysler -- where he's reunited with CEO Bob Nardelli, who as chief of Home Depot tapped the Arnell Group to create an innovations operation -- is that he'll sharpen a design approach and customer experience that just about every one agrees is lacking -- especially with a view to making its cars more appealing to customers overseas.

With the rather lofty title of acting chief innovation officer, Mr. Arnell will have input on how the sputtering maker of Dodge trucks, Jeep SUVs and Chrysler sedans crafts future editions of its cars and trucks. Not bad for someone who, despite a design résumé that stretches back 25 years, is still pretty much known as an adman.

"This is a line in the sand where I take my rightful place as an industrial designer," said Mr. Arnell in an interview last week from Geneva, where he was taking in the auto show. "We've had the integrated model from the beginning, but it's always been living in this high state of disbelief. When we talked about Pepsi and about Home Depot, no one believed it."

High praise
The mere mention of the 49-year-old Mr. Arnell often yields high-toned reactions that can run from deep skepticism to the almost embarrassingly enthusiastic. Consider the following descriptions from a 2002 profile that ran in these pages: "Larger than life" (source: Celine Dion); "catalyst" (Tommy Mottola); "a really talented guy, a dynamo" (Donald Trump); "manic ... a bold genius, kind of giddy and weird" (Frank Gehry); "very, very unusually talented guy" with a "really, really big heart" (Rudy Giuliani).

As for the incredulity, it appears that won't be going away anytime soon. Not long after Ad Age sibling Automotive News broke the story on Mr. Arnell and Chrysler last week, BusinessWeek responded with a blog post that was sharply critical of Mr. Arnell's credentials for taking on that kind of role.

Just three months on the job, Mr. Arnell said his influence had yet to be seen and won't be until later this year. In the next 30 months, vehicles and other Chrysler merchandise available in dealerships that bears his touch should be hitting the marketplace. But whether it helps an automaker that's having tough time with its turnaround as it putters into a nasty-looking economic period remains to be seen.

"He could have great impact or no impact at all," said Kevin Tynan, senior auto analyst at Argus Research. "At this stage of the game they may be trying to overcompensate by bringing in all the big guns. This is in line with the way they recruited talent from other places to fill these top-line positions. It doesn't ensure success or guarantee anything."

Shake-up needed
One thing is certain: Chrysler needs help. It's been a bumpy ride since private-equity firm Cerberus bought the majority of the group from parent DaimlerChrysler last year and installed Bob Nardelli as CEO. As recently as December, there were rumors that the company was near bankruptcy, talk that Chrysler dispelled. What it can't play down are its well-known product shortcomings, which have been acknowledged by company executives themselves. A recent Wall Street Journal article, for instance, quoted Mr. Nardelli complaining about wind noise in a Sebring convertible in a "terse" e-mail to top designer Trevor Creed. It'll be up to Mr. Arnell, who now sits on Chrysler's product-planning council, and his agency to cut out flaws in future designs while not clashing with the likes of Mr. Creed or, for that matter, CMO Deborah Meyer.

Mr. Arnell and Chrysler spokesman David Barnas dismissed any concerns about turf wars. Wrote Mr. Barnas in an e-mail: "Within our company, we have a wealth of knowledge and experience. Adding fresh perspectives and outside specialists is a way to accelerate Chrysler's transformation and our drive toward long-term sustainable success."

One of Mr. Arnell's most pressing challenges will be to design cars that attract consumers both here and abroad. Chrysler's made no secret of the fact that much of its future growth will be found in international markets. Last year, Chrysler moved only 238,000 cars outside North America -- not much when you consider its global sales volume of more than 2 million units. The automaker's press release on Mr. Arnell took pains to mention his experience with helping "multinational companies on a global basis," including PepsiCo, Bank of America, Gap Inc., and Samsung. Mr. Arnell, in Switzerland last week, recently had been in China, so he's already putting on the miles. He also has an office in Detroit where he spends two to three days a week.

What he's not worried about is any hangover from those Celine Dion Pacifica ads that were lemons with dealers and ended up costing the company a good chunk of change -- not to mention the job of the Chrysler executive who ordered them up.

"I did what I was asked to do, and in doing that I did a phenomenal job in the creative," said an unapologetic Mr. Arnell. "I was not responsible for determining the market, pricing or positioning of that vehicle."
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