Catching Up With the Busiest Man in the Motor City

GM's LaNeve on His New Roster, Electric Cars and Celebrities in Ads

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It's been a busy year for Mark LaNeve. Since May, the VP-sales, service and marketing for General Motors Corp. in North America has been doing double duty, taking on responsibilities of his former subordinate, Michael Jackson, who unexpectedly resigned as VP-marketing and advertising for North America.
Mark LaNeve, VP-sales, service and marketing for General Motors Corp. in North America
Mark LaNeve, VP-sales, service and marketing for General Motors Corp. in North America

A scorecard is needed to keep track of all the agency shifts GM has made in the past year. In June, the automaker announced it would consolidate the Buick, Pontiac and GMC brands Oct. 1 at Leo Burnett. McCann Erickson, Birmingham, Mich., was Buick's longtime agency and had already gotten hammered a year ago, when GM moved its corporate account to Interpublic sibling Deutsch, Los Angeles. Then last month, GM shifted gears, returning that account to McCann, along with its Saab account from sibling Lowe, New York. Deutsch got Saturn early this year without a review.

Mr. LaNeve, 48, discussed the account moves and other matters with Detroit Bureau Chief Jean Halliday recently at GM's world headquarters.

Advertising Age: Are you concerned that you could lose momentum as the new shops get up to speed?

Mark LaNeve: I am not worried about that. We had a corporate project that went to Deutsch [Los Angeles], and Mike [Jackson] had some thoughts of moving all of [corporate] out there. ... We happened to have given the [corporate-wide vehicle] warranty project to Deutsch because we wanted a West Coast-influence thought stream going into it, and we wanted the creative to really get into the psyche of import owners who don't have 100,000-mile warranties. But it's not an ongoing piece of business. My intent was for Deutsch to have that project, and they did a great job with it, and they may get another one someday. In my mind, it never left McCann. Our corporate tactical work for our sales events stayed at McCann. If there's an agency that's going to help us with strategy, I want them here.

AdAge: How important was Publicis' purchase of Digitas to consolidating Buick, Pontiac and GMC at Publicis?

Mr. LaNeve: Publicis' purchase of Digitas was good for Publicis and good for GM. It was a minor consideration for moving the business. We want to run Buick, Pontiac and GMC as a [retail] channel. We were thinking about putting it at one agency for probably over two years. But Jim Bunnell came in [as general manager of Buick, Pontiac and GMC in May] and felt the timing was right, so we moved right away. We had discussions with [Publicis' chief] Maurice Levy and [Burnett chief] Tom Bernardin out in front of the actual announcement.

AdAge: What are your challenges for the rest of the year?

Mr. LaNeve: If you look at our performance over the last 27 to 28 months, over two years now we've had a very stable retail market share, and we've got to not only continue that momentum, but to leverage the new products we've brought to the market, which have been well-accepted. We have to continue to defend our great truck position. We've gained share in all the major truck categories this year. We have penetrated the mid-crossover segment with our new entries, and we now have a 23% share from zero almost two years ago with the [GMC] Acadia, [Saturn] Outlook and [Buick] Enclave. We need to make some significant moves in cars with the continued development of the [Saturn] Aura and continue the solid performance of the [Pontiac] G6, [Chevrolet] Impala, and especially now with the new [Cadillac] CTS and [Chevrolet] Malibu.

AdAge: What do you mean by "the continued development of Aura"?

Mr. LaNeve: The Aura will end up this year at probably 60,000-plus [vehicle sales]. We gained share this year in midsize cars, and part of that was Aura, which we didn't have a year ago. So continued development to me is now we have a four-cylinder Aura that we didn't have that first year and we have increased availability of the Aura Hybrid. We are going to continue to improve our sales pace on Aura. I don't think 65,000 is the ceiling; I think it's kind of the floor.

AdAge: Why didn't you have a four-cylinder for Aura if that engine is the biggest seller in the midsize-car category?

Mr. LaNeve: It was just timing. We had a choice of waiting or just getting out there with the six. The segment runs 70% four-cylinder so we were out there without one. It's going to help a lot to get the four-cylinder out there. We just started shipping them [to dealers].

AdAge: How well did the Aura launch go last fall?

Mr. LaNeve: In hindsight, we could have spent some additional advertising dollars to increase awareness. If you look at the 16% [unit-sales] increase for Saturn this year, it's one of the best in the industry in a down year. But I believe we were overly optimistic in how quickly we could attract new buyers and more-affluent buyers to the Saturn brand. Some of that is going to take some time. I am real optimistic we'll continue to improve the Aura [sales].

AdAge: There's talk on the grapevine about a U.S. reorganization that would give general managers more power and remove a layer by having the field-sales team report directly to them, although there's management dissension on which way to go.

Mr. LaNeve: No big-bang reorganization is being planned. We will continue to evolve to meet business challenges and continue to get focused on delivering great products to eight brands and four [retail] channels. Whatever we got to do to do that, we'll do. We have reduced a lot of layers over the last few years, and I can say we'll probably keep taking layers out. Despite public opinion to the contrary, we are a leaner organization than we've ever been, and I think it compares to a lot of our competition.

AdAge: Why is Chevrolet advertising the Volt, the plug-in car that won't be out until ... when?

Mr. LaNeve: We're not saying when. We don't think there's one solution to the fuel-economy/environmental debate. We think it's five. We think it's biofuels, flex fuels, it's hybrids, it's electric vehicles, and we think hydrogen has a place at the table. We advertise the Volt for awareness, prepping the market that this is a viable solution. It's not the only solution. We've got four or five hybrids in the market now, and we'll have 16 within three years. GM is the only company with Honda that is working on all five, although Honda is not really into biofuels. Toyota is very heavily invested in just hybrids. We think the world we're going to live in 20 years from now is going to have some level of [auto] sales in all five.

AdAge: What's your take on celebrities in advertising? GM has used a lot of celebrities in ads lately -- Tiger Woods, the latest OnStar work and Cadillac's CTS launch.

Mr. LaNeve: I'm always very apprehensive about celebrities as the focus of the brand. I love the association of celebrities when they are advocates of the brand or helping us with insights or opening up new markets for us. But putting a celebrity front and center in association at the very core of your brand is very risky. I don't think that model works in our space. We're not looking for any huge celebrity direct tie-ins. We are looking for continued associations that have worked well for us. I think that for some environmental messaging we may use a celebrity, but it will have to be genuine. It's got to be folks who are really interested in hydrogen technology, our E-flex, our technology with the Volt and ethanol. I think that all works if it's genuine and they are advocates and we'll continue to explore those relationships.

AdAge: What's your golf handicap?

Mr. LaNeve: It's a 17 now. But it was as low as 11 back in early 1990, when I was running Cadillac's golf program.
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