Olivier Francois sits shotgun in a Jeep Compass parked in a sun-splashed lot fronting a music studio near West Hollywood. Inside the shiny black SUV, an Apple rep gives the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles marketing chief a demo of CarPlay, the in-dash iPhone digital display. Francois interrupts. "Siri does not speak my language," the Paris-born executive says, half joking, before being assured that, indeed, Siri can be set to speak French.
But music is the only language that seems to matter to Francois on this late June morning. The Frenchman—known for selling the American dream in the form of big-budget ads starring Eminem, Clint Eastwood and countless other celebrities—is inside the Warner Music Group studio minutes later announcing his latest star-studded campaign. The ad blitz includes songs from 10 artists, from Alice Cooper to OneRepublic, whose frontman Ryan Tedder is an invited guest at the event, along with entertainment media and music industry execs.
"Each of our brands has its own sound, its own score, its own playlist," Francois boasts before showing off the ads. The effort—which plugs free six-month Apple Music streaming subscriptions for buyers of Jeep, Chrysler, Dodge, Ram and Fiat vehicles—is the kind of glitzy Hollywood collaboration in which Francois revels.
But this deal comes at a pivotal moment for him and his company. Francois, 56, is entering a period of uncertainty as corporate changes loom at the Italian-American automaker. On Saturday the company named Mike Manley, the head of its Jeep and Ram brand, to replace Sergio Marchionne as its CEO. Marchionne had been expected to retire early next year, but his deteriorating health accelerated the timeline.
Marchionne, known for his blunt talk, black sweaters and for ushering Chrysler from bankruptcy in 2009, promoted Francois up through the ranks, including installing him as CMO in 2011. "I'd be shocked if he were to stay past Sergio," one former FCA employee said in an interview earlier this month, speaking on condition of anonymity, echoing an opinion that has been widely held in Detroit for a while. But Rebecca Lindland, executive analyst at Kelley Blue Book, said in an emailed statement Saturday that "I believe Olivier will stay," noting that "Olivier and Mike have worked closely together over the years."
In an interview after the June campaign event, Francois insisted he's not going anywhere. Asked about Francois' status in light of the new CEO, an FCA spokeswoman on Sunday referred back to Francois' answer in June that he is not planning to leave.
But staying carries risks, including operating under a new CEO who might not give him the autonomy he enjoyed under Marchionne. "Sergio clearly let him do what he wanted to do, which is an enviable relationship between a CEO and CMO," says Peter DeLorenzo, a former auto marketing executive and editor in chief of Autoextremist.com.
There is no doubt Francois has benefited from the relationship, rising from a little-known marketer to the highest-profile CMO in the big-spending auto category. Francois has used his power to run ad campaigns that made big cultural statements, like 2011's award-winning "Imported From Detroit" effort starring Eminem, credited with burnishing the image of Chrysler and the Motor City.
But at the same time he has often had contentious relationships with ad agencies, which must deal with his micromanaging style and fickle tastes. Francois, in the June interview, owns up to that. "I'm beyond hands-on. I'm literally a pain in the ass," he says. It's not uncommon for him to be in the editing room, going over every small detail. "I approach each commercial as a little jewel, a little piece of art, a little piece of myself," he says.
One ad agency exec, who like several others spoke on condition of anonymity to protect industry relationships, describes working with Francois as both exhilarating and irritating. "He can be a great collaborative partner when he gets engaged and interested in something. ... It can be maddening, though, when he takes your idea and hands it to another agency and it shows up on TV, and you are like, 'What the fuck? That was our idea.'"
A scattered agency approach
Dressed in casual attire befitting the California summer day—a blue blazer and blue golf shirt—Francois is relaxed, seemingly pleased at how the media event went. He speaks with an accent and in a ram- bling style, stopping to occasionally apologize when he can't find the precise English word, and another time to fetch a cappuccino. When the conversation turns to his agency approach, he bristles. "We never ever, ever, ever took an idea of an agency and give it to another one. That would be totally pointless for one reason. We pay them all the same. So why would I? It makes no sense."