Is Bob Lutz the Right Guy to Run GM's Marketing?

Far-From-Retiring Design Guru Will Be CMO, but He'll Need the Right Stuff to Lead in New-Media Age

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DETROIT (AdAge.com) -- He's got the guts: He's a blunt-speaking attack-jet aviator who gets his jollies flying fighters at age 77. He's got the name: He's an acknowledged automotive-industry star and a design ace. And he's got the experience: He's worked in the auto industry for 46 years.

Bob Lutz
Bob Lutz Credit: Tim Klein
But the question being bandied about in advertising circles is whether that vast experience could work against Bob Lutz in an age in which selling cars is increasingly about amplifying peer-to-peer recommendations and data-driven direct marketing and less about the mass-market commercials that have long been the mainstay of most of GM's brands.

True, the dramatic comeback of the vice chairman -- who was slated to retire at the end of the year before being named last week to run marketing at the country's fourth-largest advertiser -- gives GM a much-needed "name" to put in front of a skeptical public. But is he up to the challenge of being, as GM President-CEO Fritz Henderson called him, a change agent?

Even an ex-GMer who called himself a supporter of Mr. Lutz wondered whether the former Marine captain would have the energy to revolutionize the way the carmaker communicates, saying, "GM needs to start over."

The unflappable Mr. Lutz, who until April headed global product development, is taking on the added responsibility of advertising and marketing czar. It's a far-reaching role. "Bob's responsibilities beyond creative design will include brands, marketing, advertising and communications," and his job "is to integrate those activities and provide accountability for consistent messaging and results," Mr. Henderson said.

New blood needed?
The new chief marketer put it in more typical Lutz fashion: "I have always been a vocal critic of much of the [advertising] that we do," he said. "Maybe one of the reasons I got the job was 'OK, you don't like it? Fix it.'"

But some believe GM needs more of an up-and-coming, digital-savvy CMO than an established Mr. Fix-It. They said new blood is needed to signal that it's not business as usual at the "new" GM, which the appointment of Mr. Lutz seems to indicate. "GM has to do something radical" in communications, one of them said.

Indeed, one of Mr. Lutz's first tasks was to call meetings next week with officials of GM's remaining four vehicle brands to see proposed ad work and to get him up to speed on some of the most current messaging. But there wasn't mention of overall marketing strategy, new media or media planning.

And while GM spent $2.9 billion last year, $669 million of the total was spent in unmeasured media, which is a swiftly growing part of the business for automakers and marketers at large.

Mr. Lutz, however, talked a good game when it came to integration and bringing design into the equation. "We're going to shift resources," he told Automotive News. "We're going to have design have a powerful influence on public relations and advertising and vice versa. It's really going to be, for the first time, an integrated communications approach." And it won't be a timid one, either. GM will be "less worried about 'Gee, what is somebody going to think?'" he said. "We're going to go from being very defensive and risk-averse in communications" and become "much bolder in getting our story out."

Outspoken ad man
No one doubts his ability to be bold. Dave Rooney a former director-marketing and global communications at Chrysler, who worked with Mr. Lutz there, said, "Bob is a marketer by passion and he has an innate sense of the marketplace."

Arthur "Bud" Liebler, former senior VP-marketing at Chrysler, who also worked with Mr. Lutz there, said his former boss has a good understanding of marketing. Mr. Liebler, who now runs an eponymous communications-strategy firm, recalled Mr. Lutz being outspoken after being shown a proposal for an emotional and sensual ad campaign for the Dodge Ram pickup in the mid-'90s. Mr. Lutz called the work "pretty advertising," then asked why the managers behind it weren't telling consumers about the changes in the truck. "We changed that campaign in a hurry," Mr. Liebler said.

He said he's unsure whether Mr. Lutz is up to speed on the digital world, though he noted that the GM executive has a blog and added, "I don't like to second-guess Bob. "

Susan Docherty, VP of Buick-GMC, told Ad Age last week that Mr. Lutz "already booked a meeting with us Tuesday" to see the most current messaging and work in progress for the two brands. She called Mr. Lutz "an icon in this business" who has a "tremendous amount of experience."

That's undebatable. Mr. Lutz began his automotive career in 1963 at GM in Europe before joining BMW in Munich as exec VP-sales for three years. Mr. Lutz spent 12 years at Ford Motor Co. and served on its board. He logged a dozen years at Chrysler, where he led all auto activities, including marketing and product development, and he chronicled his time there in his 1998 book "Guts: The Seven Laws of Business That Made Chrysler the World's Hottest Car Company." He rejoined GM in 2001.

There'll be those who'll say a guy who's been selling cars for 46 years is going to have trouble changing the way it's done, but the consensus from those who know him is that if any 77-year-old can rip up the rulebook, it's Bob Lutz.

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Contributing: Jamie Lareau

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