Rock blames Burnett

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John Rock has one regret: That he didn't fire Oldsmobile's advertising agency, Leo Burnett USA, in 1993.

Mr. Rock was Olds' general manager from 1992-1997 and was chiefly responsible for crafting the division's current-and now failed-strategy. He retooled Oldsmobile as General Motors Corp.'s import fighter. Looking back from his ranch in South Dakota, he doesn't blame the lineup he helped produce. He blames poor marketing.

In the early 1990s, Buick and Oldsmobile had essentially the same customers. So GM decided to let Buick handle traditional, older customers and use Olds to attack import buyers. The Aurora, Intrigue and Alero replaced such well-established nameplates as the Ninety Eight, Eighty Eight and Cutlass Supreme.

"It was a risky repositioning. It would take some skillful marketing, and evidently it didn't work," said Mr. Rock.

When Mr. Rock joined Oldsmobile in April 1992, the division already was hemorrhaging. It ended the 1992 model year selling 437,544 vehicles, down from nearly 1.2 million in the 1986 model year.

Many dealers blamed the sales slide on Burnett for its failure to develop a clear brand image. Dealer councils had sought an ad agency review. Burnett and its predecessor had had the account since 1934.

Mr. Rock put the automaker's $140 million account up for review. But after a grueling five-month review of 15 agencies by divisional executives and dealers, Burnett came out the winner.

"I had them in the target and let them off the hook," said Mr. Rock. "It's the biggest mistake I ever made."

Replied a Burnett spokeswoman: "We're surprised that he has made this statement, particularly since he gave us such a ringing endorsement when he made the decision to retain Burnett in 1993. Naturally, we don't share his opinion."

Mr. Kranz is product editor of Automotive News.

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