What Fiat Chrysler CEO change means for CMO Olivier Francois

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Credit: Illustration by Tam Nguyen/Ad Age

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."

Olivier Francois at the June campaign launch in L.A.
Olivier Francois at the June campaign launch in L.A.  Credit: FCA

FCA works with a long list of creative shops, including DDB Chicago, Doner, Richards Group, GSD&M, FCB Chicago and Huge. Francois says he keeps an agency of record for each brand; DDB is the lead for Jeep, for instance. But AOR is a loosely defined term at FCA. Francois frequently shuffles assignments. Tiny Chicago shop Highdive got the Jeep piece of the Apple Music campaign after joining the FCA roster at the Super Bowl for a polarizing Ram ad. Arnold Worldwide, which had not previously worked with FCA, also got a Super Bowl ad for Jeep.

Francois has a limited view of what he wants his agencies to do—and that does not include big strategic thinking. "If you need to outsource your strategy to an agency, then you are in trouble," he says. "I need them to come with the right spark at the right moment and help me bring the best commercial ... but the strategy should belong to the brand." He compares picking agencies to casting a movie: "You are going to cast the guy or lady who is more likely to fit the role," he says. "There is an AOR for each [brand]," he says. But "when we are not happy, we change. We change very often."

The scattered agency approach makes FCA an outlier in its industry, where a single agency is often embedded in the marketing department for big brands. Chevrolet works exclusively with IPG's Commonwealth/McCann. At Ford, WPP's Global Team Blue operates as an extension of Ford's marketing department in offices that abut Ford's Dearborn, Michigan, campus. Saatchi & Saatchi handles everything for Toyota in the U.S., from media to creative.

For FCA shops, the automaker's approach can be unnerving, but plenty of agencies have been willing to take the good with the bad. "The majority of revenue is on how many things you get [approved] and that is highly unpredictable," says one agency executive. But "in some ways we actually kind of like it. We can just go try and make spots, tell great stories, shoot beautiful stories, shoot beautiful film. ... There is a liberation to it." Francois has "a killer eye for design," he adds. "He's got a great ear for music and he's got a very strong sense of vocabulary in copy. He's got awesome creative skills."

Often Francois asks agencies to assemble so- called "rips"—stock footage meant to approximate the final version of an ad. "His biggest strength is he has amazing creative taste and passion to push some amazing great work," says an exec at one shop. "His two biggest challenges are he doesn't know how to work long-term relationships with agencies and he does not have one strategic bone in his body." But according to Francois, FCA just wants its agencies to avoid lengthy strategic presentations: "A 70-page strategy? We have it in our mind. Do we need the agency to do that?" Another agency executive says: "Strategy is much more loosely defined with him. It's really more about imagery and tonality."

The ad hits, and misses

More often than not, Francois has struck the right tone. That's been especially true during the Super Bowl, where he has shown an ability to read the mood of the country and deliver ads that connect on a raw emotional level. "Halftime in America" in 2012, starring Eastwood, drew parallels between the fall and rise of the U.S. auto industry and the fortitude of the American people. While some Republicans complained the spot was an homage to President Obama for the auto bailout, the ad thrust Chrysler into the national conversation.

"In the auto space he's been the CMO of the last decade," DeLorenzo says. "He always understood- that bigness of the moment. Other car companies would appear on the Super Bowl and it would be a forgettable exercise and literally a waste of money."

Still, Francois has gone more than two years without a Super Bowl smash. A Jeep ad by Arnold that ran in this year's game did win a Silver Lion at Cannes, but in the game's aftermath it was overshadowed by one clunker: a Ram spot roundly criticized for using a Martin Luther King Jr., speech to sell trucks. The ad was the debut effort for FCA by Highdive, the boutique shop led by two DDB Chicago veterans. With the new Ram tagline "Built to Serve," the ad carried elements of a Francois classic: sweeping footage set against the words of a cultural icon. But critics seized on the fact that the full MLK speech was actually a battle cry against commercialism, including a passage that ripped advertisers as "gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion."

One agency exec suggests the backlash left a mark: "The wind shifted there in terms of a willingness to take risks. ... He's a risk-taker so I think he's gotten a little quieter." As social media criticism mounted in the hours after the ad ran, Francois did not give interviews. FCA instead put out a single statement defending the ad and saying it worked closely with the Martin Luther King Jr., estate on it.

Francois, in the June interview, downplayed the social media reaction. "We've been monitoring it very closely and the numbers don't tell us that the ad was rejected," he says. "It established the new tagline 'Built to Serve.' That is what we wanted."

A new era

Still, Francois concedes he is taking less risks with ads—but not because of the Ram experience. Instead, he points to a new era at the automaker, which has risen from the ashes of Chrysler's 2009 bankruptcy to rival GM and Ford in size. "I'm less open to gamble than I was because I have more chips on the table now," he says. By that, he means FCA is no longer the scrappy underdog it was coming out of bankruptcy when it needed, as he puts it, "a massive injection of awareness."

Sergio Marchionne at the automaker's annual general meeting in Amsterdam, Netherlands, on April 13, 2018.
Sergio Marchionne at the automaker's annual general meeting in Amsterdam, Netherlands, on April 13, 2018. Credit: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

"When we started back in 2009, we were really the smallest of the Big Three," Francois says. (FCA still trails GM and Ford, its two Detroit-based competitors, in U.S. sales, but it is gaining ground.) "We started as renegades. We started as a bunch of believers and we wanted to make a mark, and we didn't have much time to do that." Marchionne, he says, instilled a "be-afraid-of-nothing" attitude.

To understand where FCA is now, you have to look at its past. In 2009, Chrysler Group—which then included Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram—had an 8.9 percent share of the U.S. automotive market and spent $576 million on measured media, according to the Ad Age Datacenter. That same year Italian automaker Fiat, then led by Marchionne, struck a global alliance with Chrysler, forming the roots of what would become Fiat Chrysler Automobiles in 2014 after Fiat acquired 100 percent ownership of Chrysler. FCA's brands include all of the Chrysler Group holdings plus Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Maserati and Lancia. In 2017, FCA had 12 percent automotive share in the U.S. and spent $1.98 billion on advertising, according to the Datacenter.

Thanks to its hot-selling Jeep brand, FCA's U.S. vehicle sales rose 4.4 percent in the first half of 2018, outperforming GM (up 4.2 percent) and Ford (down 1.8 percent), according to Automotive News. FCA still trails them in vehicles sold, but it's nipping at Ford's heels for second place, with 1,121,039 vehicles sold through June to Ford's 1,271,714.

FCA's new five-year global plan, unveiled in Italy in June, aims to double profits. The automaker is emphasizing its two truck and SUV workhorses, Jeep and Ram; and high-end brands Alfa Romeo and Maserati.

Mike Manley at the 2018 North American International Auto Show.
Mike Manley at the 2018 North American International Auto Show. Credit: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles

Manley, 54, a native of England, has led Jeep since 2009 and Ram since 2015. "Manley is grounded in the fundamentals, and he's particularly savvy when it comes to knowing what dealers need to do their best," DeLorenzo says. How his promotion to CEO affects Francois's working relationship with Manley "remains to be seen," he adds. "But I expect it to be business as usual for Francois, at least for the foreseeable future."

Manley has a reputation as a "car guy," which could affect his willingness to go along with some of the big sweeping ads Francois has pursued. He "doesn't share Olivier's passion for world-class advertising," says one agency executive. But "he could bring more discipline and professionalism into FCA's relationships with agencies."

The marketing department will face new pressure as FCA attempts to hit its profit goals. "When they came out of bankruptcy they got to play the underdog...Well now, they've come back," says Michelle Krebs, an analyst for Autotrader. "They also have to be focused on how they spend," she adds, citing projections of a downturn in the U.S. auto market after years of growth. "They're going to have to defend their turf, and that wasn't necessarily something they were doing before."

The one that got away

Francois operated under Marchionne's wing since Marchionne hired him at Fiat in 2005 to run the Lancia brand. At the time, Francois had been working as a general manager in Italy for French automotive brand Citroen. In a 2016 interview with Australia's Wheels magazine, Francois described how he was lured by Marchionne to join the then-troubled Fiat company: "My right brain said, 'I like the guy.' He had such amazing leadership and I felt that somehow, maybe there was [hope]. I was at a moment when the whole thing was fucked up. ... I was divorcing, marrying another person, changing country, so I say, 'Change for change—let's just take a risk.'"

Francois' penchant for using celebrities, and taking risks, quickly became apparent. He put Richard Gere in a 2008 ad for Lancia airing in Italy that showed the actor driving from Hollywood to Tibet. Gere has campaigned for Tibetan independence, so the ad struck a nerve with the Chinese government, forcing Fiat to apologize. But the ad got attention, and Francois kept moving up, becoming CEO for the Chrysler brand in 2009 and grabbing the CMO title in 2011 for what would turn into FCA.

A-listers who have appeared in FCA ads include Will Ferrell (as Ron Burgundy), Ben Stiller (as Derek Zoolander) and Bob Dylan, who appeared in a 2014 Super Bowl ad. Francois even married a celebrity. In 2014 he tied the knot with Italian singer and actress Arianna Bergamaschi in a ceremony in Venice that Vanity Fair described as a fairytale wedding.

But there is one big fish that Francois has not caught: Bruce Springsteen, whom he has relentlessly pursued to be in an ad. Francois doesn't give up easily, but The Boss is out of reach. "He's not for sale," he concedes. "He's not for rent. And there's nothing you have that he wants."

Music, not cars, was Francois' first love. He graduated from Institut des Sciences Politiques, a Paris university known for educating elites. He started his own music label in France and later got into the exporting business. A 2010 profile in France's Le Monde noted he exported jam and sold skis. He entered the car business in 1990 when he was hired by Citroen. Francois says he has always operated in two worlds, as a creative guy and as "the entrepreneur, the business guy, that I've always been."

As an ad man, he views music as a "Trojan horse," he says—a way to sneak FCA's brands in front of targeted audiences. This is most apparent in the automaker's aggressive product-placement strategy, in which it pays to get its vehicles shown in music videos. At the Apple Music campaign launch, Francois sets the stage by showing a sizzle reel highlighting the multitude of FCA product placements in music videos over the years. There's Jennifer Lopez driving a Fiat, Sting and Shaggy in a Jeep, Jason Aldean in a Ram truck, a Chrysler Pacifica van driving through a Fergie video and more. A counter adds up the total YouTube views, stopping at 18 billion. "We are the most-viewed car company on YouTube," Francois boasts.

Is it an ad, or a music video?

Often, FCA's traditional TV ads resemble music videos. For the 2015 launch of the Jeep Renegade, FCA built an entire campaign around the X Ambassadors' song "Renegades" in a partnership with Interscope Records. The idea originated at a lunch in Malibu, California, when music producer Alex da Kid, who is affiliated with Interscope, suggested the song to Francois, recalls Steve Berman, vice chairman at Interscope, who was at the lunch. Alex da Kid "had this song in the can and it just happened to fit," Berman says. He describes Francois as "a heat-seeking missile for what's happening in culture."

Olivier Francois gets a demo of Apple's CarPlay system
Olivier Francois gets a demo of Apple's CarPlay system Credit: FCA

The deal typifies Francois' approach of luring artists and record labels with exposure via FCA ads. "I happen to be a former music producer," he says at the campaign launch. "And I can tell you it is exhausting to promote a new track. It's slow, it's frustrating, it's expensive. The smartest labels are looking for these shortcuts. We offer a shortcut."

That philosophy is at the heart of FCA's newest deal with Interscope and OneRepublic, whose new song "Connection" is featured in Jeep's summer campaign and is part of the Apple Music effort. One ad depicts a group of fans who can't get into a sold- out OneRepublic concert. They improvise by playing "Connection" in their Jeep on Apple CarPlay.

The broader Apple Music campaign represents a major investment for FCA, with ads extending across all of its major brands. Artists featured in the campaign curated song lists on Apple Music, such as a OneRepublic list for Jeep. It's a "two-way street," Francois says of the collaboration, which he says was a year in the making. "Apple Music is featured on our campaign, but our brands are featured in Apple Music. I love it," he says.

Francois says music mogul and Beats headphones co-founder Jimmy Iovine, whom he describes as a friend, flew him to Cupertino, California, so he could pitch Apple directly. "It was not an easy pitch because Apple is a partner that every carmaker, every marketer on earth, dreams to partner with," Francois says at the event, which seemed aimed at buzz in the entertainment press. Rolling Stone, Variety and Billboard all published stories, lured by the presence of OneRepublic's Tedder.

The event ends with three songs performed by Alec Benjamin, a budding, baby-faced singer/songwriter on Warner Music, who first admits "this is like the most intimidating thing I've ever done." On his way out, Francois pulls the young singer aside. "I love the first song," he says. "The chorus is killer."

It is, perhaps, destined for a Jeep ad—if Francois sticks around long enough to make it.

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