Lutz: GM Agencies Are Safe -- for Now

Marketing Chief Calls for More Senior-Management Involvement, Says Shops Must 'Move the Needle'

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DETROIT ( -- General Motors Co.'s newly appointed marketing chief, Bob Lutz, told Automotive News he plans to take a more hands-on approach to shaping GM's marketing and advertising but has no immediate plans to review its accounts or fire its ad agencies.

Bob Lutz
Bob Lutz Credit: Tim Klein
As previously reported by Ad Age, Mr. Lutz is meeting with some of GM's ad agencies this week and has asked them to come up with several creative ideas. While he declined to tell Automotive News the deadline he's given them, he acknowledged that GM needs to move fast -- within the next three to six months -- to improve public perception after it spent 39 days in federal bankruptcy protection.

Agencies that can't show results eventually will be reviewed, he said. "If, after strong senior-management direction, the agency, for some reason, repeatedly fails to come up with a product where the customer says, 'Yes! That's exactly what I want' and fails to move the needle, then obviously you start reviewing the agency," Mr. Lutz said. "But to come into a job and not look at the way the company has approached marketing and the way the company has directed its marketing and just fire agencies and keep your internal system in place -- the new agency will give you exactly the same advertising that your old agency did."

Mr. Lutz said the creative process too often occurs from the bottom up, and "there's usually a lack of senior management involvement." He added, "I will always give existing agencies a chance because, as one agency head once told me in my career, 'The way the American automobile companies deal with agencies is almost a system that prevents brilliant advertising.''"

The message Mr. Lutz wants from GM's ad agencies is one that portrays the car as hero. "I don't want happy employees on the screen saying how much they enjoyed building the car," he said. "I want an interesting ad that's memorable. I want people to have a positively changed perception after viewing the ad."

GM filed for bankruptcy protection June 1 as U.S. auto sales stagnated at 27-year lows. The automaker emerged from protection July 10 with $50 billion in backing from the U.S. government.

Mr. Lutz had been GM's vice chairman of product development for the past eight years. When GM emerged from bankruptcy protection, he postponed retirement to become vice chairman of marketing and communications with some oversight of design.

With GM's first-half U.S. vehicle sales down 40.4%, Mr. Lutz began shaking up GM's marketing and advertising strategies almost right away. In a rare move for a senior executive, he publicly criticized recent ads for the Buick LaCrosse.

Mr. Lutz said Chrysler did some breakthrough advertising when he worked there, from 1986 to 1998. He credited former Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca, who spent a lot of his personal time on marketing.

Mr. Lutz is critical of the marketing process used by many large corporations -- a process he said actually hinders creativity. "It's much like a sausage machine. Many people at the operating level check to make sure this message is here, and 'Let's not forget this piece,' and 'Let's not do that because this may offend this group of people.'"

So by the time senior management sees a proposed ad, Mr. Lutz said, it becomes "this highly sanitized product that is often devoid of any risk or breakthrough capability."

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