4A's Conference

Chevy CMO: Media Partners Help Reach Consumers Faster Than Creative Directors

GM Exec Said Art-School Grads Not as Good at Finding Innovative Tactics

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General Motors global Chevrolet marketing chief Tim Mahoney didn't give "proper homage to the creative side of the house."

That was a quip McCann Worldgroup CEO Harris Diamond said in jest during his interview with Mr. Mahoney onstage at the 4As Transformation conference. It was a reaction to how marketers like GM are increasingly turning to media partners and seeing more value in what they offer, sometimes even at the expense of creative agencies.

Tim Mahoney, Chevrolet
Tim Mahoney, Chevrolet

When asked what he is looking for from media partners -- much of Tuesday's agenda at the conference was focused on media -- Mr. Mahoney said that media partners these days increasingly help the marketer reach its target. As technology advances, he said, media partners can help the company "find innovative ways to reach consumers faster than creative directors who came from art school."

Mr. Diamond -- whose agency is part of the Commonwealth unit that handles Chevrolet -- then asked Mr. Mahoney how important creative is to GM. Mr. Mahoney, who joined GM in March 2013 after it launched Chevy's "Find new roads" campaign, said that creative is still critical to marketing, as he views marketers as "storytellers," and GM board members still spend hours pouring over a commercial.

The creative-versus-media partners discussion wasn't the focus of the interview, but it's exemplary of the industry as media partners and agencies are increasingly shaping creative and strategy, especially in digital and social, and gaining influence with CMOs.

But General Motors has a more immediate PR issue it's addressing with the ignition-switch recall, and as of this morning, another recall of 300,000 vans due to an airbag risk. An audience member asked Mr. Mahoney how the company's marketing and communications departments are working together during the recall to ensure the company moves forward, but Mr. Mahoney largely deflected the question and instead said that he works with other senior executives, and that the company is working out years in advance what the communications and marketing plans will be for a car's rollout.

Mr. Diamond even noted the deflection, joking that Mr. Mahoney is an expert in how not to answer questions about the recall.

Mr. Mahoney and Mr. Diamond also talked about diversity in marketing, a topic that American Express marketer John Hayes covered on Monday at the 4As conference. Mr. Diamond asked Mr. Mahoney whether advertising is changing at the same pace as consumers when it comes to social issues. Mr. Mahoney said that he actually thinks that consumers are ahead of marketers when it comes to diversity, and that marketers need to be willing to take a risk, even if they worry that including a nontraditional family in an ad might upset some consumers. "We have to come at it from a perspective of inclusion," he said.

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