How Chrysler Chief Olivier Francois Is Selling Detroit

'You've Got to Tell Stories That Grab People by the Collar,' Says Risk-Taking CEO

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Olivier Francois
Olivier Francois Credit: Ray Gordon
Joel Martin, principal of Eight Mile Style Music and co-owner of Eminem's song catalog, is used to getting the cold shoulder from Michigan automakers who have generally found the rap artist's song lyrics too spicy for their mainstream audiences. So, imagine his surprise when he got a call on his cellphone one day last December from an assistant at his Ferndale, Mich., office that said "The president of Chrysler is here looking for you."

The assistant didn't have it quite right. Olivier Francois is CEO of the Chrysler brand, as well as chief marketing officer for all of Chrysler, which includes the Dodge, Jeep and Ram brands. He's also CEO of Fiat's Lancia brand in Europe and CMO of Fiat. And to know how Mr. Francois operates is to know that it was very much in character for him to drive over to Mr. Martin's office with no appointment, hoping, or even expecting, that he would be there to discuss using a classic Eminem song, "Lose Yourself," in a Super Bowl ad. In the end, the meeting took place at 10 p.m. on a Sunday night.

Mr. Francois, 49, on the job at Chrysler for 15 months, is gaining a reputation among his ad agencies, dealers and staff for surprising them and taking the kinds of risks that make them feel more confident than they ever did while owned by German carmaker Daimler or private-equity firm Cerberus Capital. His latest roll of the dice was a two-minute, $9 million Super Bowl ad, featuring Eminem's anthem and the rap star himself, to launch a new strategy and tagline around the Chrysler brand: "Imported From Detroit."

"He's a maniac," said Mr. Martin of Mr. Francois, noting that he and Eminem turned down over 100 deals to use the song in ads before agreeing to sell it to Chrysler. "The whole thing had a surreal quality to it ... this French guy and all this he was telling us about loving Detroit and how important [Eminem] is to the city." If it weren't for Mr. Francois's salesmanship, "We never would have done it," he said.

While the gambit took a lot of ad-watchers off-guard, the idea of featuring the city of Detroit and playing up the heritage and history of making cars is not a new idea. "This idea has come up for Chrysler, Chevrolet and Pontiac a handful of times in the last 20 years," said Gary Topolewski, an independent creative director who has worked on Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and other car brands. "But it always got shot down by the executives who have worked in Detroit their whole lives, fearing it wouldn't play on the coasts."

But Mr. Francois greenlighted the idea, which originated with Wieden & Kennedy.

"Maybe it takes people from outside the city to see the possibilities and passion," said Mr. Francois. Of the four brands he took over, Chrysler has been the biggest challenge. It is not generally viewed as a luxury brand, but he is positioning it as "new" luxury. "Beautiful, passionate design and comfort for people who don't forget where they came from," said the Paris-born Mr. Francois, who thought he would enter the diplomatic corps after getting a political science degree in the late 1980s. An advertising and marketing degree from Sorbonnes Celsa, however, led him to Citroen and then Fiat.

When Fiat took control of Chrysler after the federally assisted bankruptcy, it didn't take long for Mr. Francois to hit on the need to change the way the company thought about its messaging. Long-time agency BBDO was served notice after working on the Chrysler business for 65 years. A review ensued in which agencies had to prepare strategies for Chrysler, Dodge and Ram Truck brands. The Richards Group of Dallas won Ram; Fallon Worldwide took Chrysler and Wieden & Kennedy took on Dodge. Global Hue retained Jeep and multicultural duties.

Since then, Mr. Francois has restructured things, separating agencies by job rather than brand. Wieden now leads on all national branding for Chrysler and Dodge. Global Hue remains lead agency on Jeep, though Wieden produced the launch campaign for Jeep Grand Cherokee in 2010, and will continue to compete for national Jeep model launches. Doner, Southfield, Mich., replaced Fallon when the latter resigned Chrysler to take on General Motors' Cadillac, and handles the retail-driven ads for all four brands. Richards retains Ram, with the thinking that the truck market is a unique ad space, and also because Chrysler plans to introduce more models -- such as commercial vans -- under the "Ram" brand. And Global Hue handles multicultural ads on all four brands.

"Things sorted themselves out based on which agency was doing the best job at each function," said Mr. Francois, who admits it can be tough for agencies to work with him because of how much he gets involved "as a creator."

Quick on his feet
He is known for making fast decisions mostly on instinct. "Meetings tend to run fast, and ideas don't get a lot of wind-up," said Richards Group CEO Stan Richards. In November 2009, Mr. Francois approved putting "rip" videos (mood videos created with stock photography and voiced by agency staff used largely for internal use) produced by Richards for Ram truck and Global Hue for Jeep on national TV as commercials despite low production values. "I was shocked, but I did not object," said Mr. Richards, whose voice was on the ad, with a laugh.

Last August, Mr. Francois approved an idea after just a few minutes of brainstorming with Wieden staffers on how to respond to protests from animal-rights groups over the use of a chimp in a Dodge retail ad -- the chimp was removed, but the clothes he was wearing were left behind, giving the ad an odd "invisible chimp" effect. Not only was PETA pleased, but the new commercial went viral; the original hadn't. And for an Independence Day-timed Dodge ad, he approved a spot showing George Washington leading a column of Continental soldiers into battle against British redcoats driving Dodge Challengers. "Some of our team had a lot of doubts, but I knew right away and approved it off the storyboards," Mr. Francois said.

Advertising "American" for Detroit automakers has been a kind of taboo, especially since, until recently, they badly lagged Asian companies such as Toyota and Honda. But Mr. Francois and his agencies have injected images of Americana and messages of pride, hard work and reward into their ads. "We're from America," proclaimed the Super Bowl ad. "The things that make us American are the things we make," go the Jeep ads. Mr. Francois hints that he has much more in store to link the Chrysler brand to the comeback of the city of Detroit, in which he wants Chrysler to be a key player.

"You can do this sort of thing very badly," said independent marketing consultant Dennis Keene. "But I have to say that Chrysler is bringing so much art to the messaging that I think it flies, though they are walking right on the line."

Doner CEO David Demuth says working with Mr. Francois is "like working with a creative director on the client side." He doesn't just approve or reject ideas or storyboards like most CMOs. For example, trained early in his life in music, Mr. Francois sits down with composers and tells them exactly what he wants or is looking for. For the Super Bowl ad, he worked with composer Luis Resto on the adaptation of "Lose Yourself."

The ad did not include Eminem's lyrics, just the music. Wieden cast Detroit gospel choir Selected By God to perform in the Super Bowl ad, but it was Mr. Francois, said Mr. Resto, who directed the crescendo leading into Eminem's line: "This is the Motor City. This is what we do." Added Mr. Resto, "How many car marketing guys can sit down and tell you why he wants a 'melancholy piano'...that was a first for me." Indeed, Mr. Francois, who does not play piano, has nevertheless composed or co-composed music for numerous Lancia and Fiat ads. He gets no royalties or payments.

What he's doing is importing the strategy to Chrysler that he has long used in Europe on Lancia ads. "You've got to tell stories that grab people by the collar, and that's what we try to do," said Mr. Francois. In a 2007 ad for the Lancia, he approached fashion designer and gay icon Stefan Gabbana to appear in an ad. Mr. Gabbana initially refused. But after Mr. Francois laid out the storyline of the ad in which Mr. Gabbana, driving a Lancia Delta, would be tempted by a beautiful woman and end up in a passionate kiss, he not only agreed, he agreed to do it for no fee. The ad created a publicity sensation in Europe and a sequel was produced.

Mr. Francois coyly said he does not like to use "spokespeople." But his two ever-present BlackBerrys run deep with celebrities who have appeared in his ads: Carla Bruni Sarkozy, Richard Gere and even the Dalai Llama. Of those, only Mr. Gere took a fee, and it was for his charity. Even Eminem sold Chrysler rights to his song for 20% of what he could have gotten just to be part of the ad. Oscar-winning actor Adrien Brody directed a Chrysler ad late last year, his commercial directing debut, and voiced the ad as well.

No stranger to risks
Clearly Mr. Francois doesn't mind poking at beehives. He launched the Richard Gere ad spotlighting the plight of Tibet the week the Beijing Olympics kicked off. And for the past three years he created Lancia ads to run the week of the annual World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates to spotlight the imprisonment of Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, a Myanmar pro-democracy leader. The ads show laureates arriving in Lancias, and close to show a Lancia's rear door opening with no laureate riding in the backseat, representing Ms. Suu Kyi's absence. Mr. Francois was editing the latest ad when he got word Ms. Suu Kyi would be released, necessitating fast changes to the ad, which he directed from a Delta Airlines flight.

Given his track record, few doubt Mr. Francois' ability to get attention for Chrysler's slowly recovering brands. The Super Bowl ad, for example, generated more online buzz and news coverage than Chevy's five ads combined. Dodge brand CEO Ralph Gilles defends Mr. Francois's penchant for risk-taking. "People get all the product information they need online ... the role of the ads should be to light a fire under them, and drive them online to check us out."

But Mr. Francois has to turn those bursts of attention into sales and favorable opinion. Chrysler's retail market share before Fiat took it over in 2009 was 8.9%, according to Automotive News figures, and by 2010, it hit 9.4%. In the three years Mr. Francois ran Citroen in Italy, the brand more than doubled market share to 6.5%.

The Chrysler-Fiat team has worked at breakneck pace since summer 2009 to make dramatic improvements to core vehicles. The 300 makeover alone cost $1 billion. "We are no longer ashamed of the products we are selling," said brutally frank CEO Sergio Marchionne.

The biggest obstacle is the mostly terrible quality ratings from Consumer Reports and J.D. Power. The makeover has corrected many past sins, but it will take two to three years for the ratings to move up to reflect it because of how the organizations work their rankings, and even longer for consumers to trust.

Chrysler this year plans to do its initial public offering in the fall. It's imperative that institutional investors and stock analysts believe Mr. Marchionne's team and operation is headed in the right direction. Not only do retail sales need to climb, but the overall operation, from product to marketing, needs to have credibility with investors and the public.

Last year, Mr. Francois commissioned a corporate ad effort from Gotham, New York, but decided not to run it, deciding instead to plow the money into the Jeep Grand Cherokee launch. Said one Chrysler insider, "He knows where the priorities are: sales."

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