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GM Shops Sweat as Lutz Sunbathes in Caribbean

Agencies Gird for Rough Round of Meetings After Exec Trashes Their Work

By Published on . 37

DETROIT (AdAge.com) -- GM's new marketing top gun, Bob Lutz, met with the automaker's brand teams on July 14, spent 10 to 20 minutes critiquing the work for each brand and, in the words of someone in the know, "crapped all over the advertising." Then he jetted off to the Caribbean island of Montserrat on holiday, leaving some scared individuals in his wake.

That's left GM's ad agencies on tenterhooks in anticipation of more-in-depth reviews this week of current and upcoming ads with Vice Chairman Lutz and each of the company's four core U.S. vehicle brand teams. The shops are also fretting that Mr. Lutz -- given his history of "design bake-offs," where he threw out projects to a group of designers and chose the best work -- might do the same with creative work on Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC.

What he's made very clear is that the brands are on notice and the ads are going to have to change to fit Mr. Lutz's branding beliefs and aesthetics. In a webcast carried on the company's Fastlane blog the day before the agency meeting, Mr. Lutz promised, "I think you will very quickly see a drastic change in the tone and content of our advertising. And if you don't, it will mean that I have failed."

Specifically, he told the brand teams last week that Cadillac's generally well-received and popular ads with "Grey's Anatomy" star Kate Walsh from Modernista are too dark and said Chevrolet's campaign from Campbell-Ewald -- still in the can and yet to run -- is too lifestyle-focused.

But it was Buick that took the most public beating for the uninspired "photo shoot" TV commercial that aired broadly for about a month until last week. In his public webcast, Mr. Lutz singled out that spot, saying, "That Buick commercial tested very well, which is not the same as saying that it's an effective ad." Buick VP Susan Docherty told Ad Age the pretesting landed in the "top quartile" for originality and breakthrough work.

Old-school approach
It's a good bet, however, that with Mr. Lutz in charge there will less pretesting and a lot more nuts and bolts in the automaker's marketing. The GM executive has a sort of old-school approach to advertising, according to people who have worked with him in that arena in the past. He favors beauty shots of products in ads and talk about the vehicle's differentiating features.

With Mr. Lutz in charge, there's no question design will take a front seat at the new GM. Last week the company made the bold move of naming Bryan Nesbitt, 40, VP-general manager of Cadillac from VP-design in North America. Design staffers also got some input into advertising by supervising a recent ad shoot, people familiar with the situation said.

GM confirmed last week that Mr. Lutz is on vacation but did not specify where. A spokeswoman said Mr. Lutz is just beginning his review of the brands' advertising, but it is "not true" that Mr. Lutz criticized all the ads. "Sure, there may be some things he wants changed -- and certainly he'll have input now and moving forward in all this," she said. "That's why various teams are reviewing things with him."

Though it wouldn't comment, Publicis Group's Leo Burnett can't be feeling too secure these days after being taken to the woodshed by Mr. Lutz on Buick -- even though the agency didn't do the work. Mark LaNeve, who just moved to VP of U.S. sales from VP-sales, service and marketing in North America, urged Burnett to hire independent Topolewski, Ferndale, Mich., for the campaign, said Cheryl Catton, general director-advertising and promotions. (Mr. Topolewski worked on Cadillac's successful "Break Through" campaign at D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles when Mr. LaNeve was head of Caddy starting in 2001.)

Mr. Topolewski declined to comment but defended the campaign to Crain's Detroit Business, saying it was aimed at "breaking stranglehold" on the perception of Buick as old and stuffy, and said he is willing to do whatever GM and Leo Burnett want. "If it doesn't quite meet what expectations are, we'll adjust accordingly," he told Crain's. "The idea was to gain attention for Buick, which I think it surely did."

'Under a microscope'
Nor is he surprised by the criticism. With GM and Chrysler under intense scrutiny because of federal loans and bankruptcy, everything is heightened and magnified, he said. "I've never worked for a company that's gone through what they've gone through. Everything is under a microscope, so you have to be careful and think through what you're doing," he said. "[Criticism] goes with the territory."

The second phase of the new Lacrosse sedan launch from Topolewski might come closer to Mr. Lutz's expectations. Ms. Catton said the next phase is due to break later this week on Buick Open TV broadcasts. The work is more product-focused, including a commercial on the car's "spectacular interior." The third phase, which will arrive in September, aims to show its differentiating technology and features, she said. The launch plan also calls for magazines, newspapers, online and events. "Burnett is doing great work for us and is planning the next Buick launch with us," Ms. Catton said.

As for the prospect of reviews, a GM spokeswoman said the three shops on the four core brands are all safe and their contracts are still in place.

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