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July 15, 2009

“Maximum Bob” leading GM marketing? It’s not as crazy as it sounds...

By Peter M. De Lorenzo

(Posted 7/13, 1:30pm) Detroit. Last week I called the daunting task of turning around GM’s image the toughest challenge in marketing history. Not just automotive marketing history, but of all time. And then last Friday GM made the stunning announcement as it emerged from bankruptcy that not only was Bob Lutz foregoing his retirement plans scheduled for the end of this year, he was returning to an active role in the company as Vice Chairman charged with leading the company’s marketing, advertising and public relations functions, basically anything and everything to do with the company’s image.

Bob Lutz as image czar? The cries of “WTF?” immediately came out of the woodwork and from all sides, as reasoned industry types pondered the idea of the 77-year-old, 46-year industry veteran leading GM’s marketing in this age where advertising has become more about “amplifying peer-to-peer recommendations and data-driven direct marketing and less about the mass-market commercials that have long been the mainstay of most General Motors brands,” as Jean Halliday wrote in Monday’s Advertising Age.

She makes an excellent point. The “new” advertising world has become one dependent on using a kaleidoscope of resources, with every communication tool known plus every potential tool on the horizon being used to get messaging through to the consumer. The now ancient idea of just doing :30 and :60 TV commercials and calling it good has been obsolete for at least a decade, and the types of communication used to gain favorable consideration from consumers will continue to grow exponentially with each new idea, technique or invention that comes along.

Knowing all of this, industry types are making the assumption that Lutz either doesn’t know how to do it or worse - doesn’t get it - and that GM’s marketing efforts are doomed to failure before they even get out of the gate.

But there’s another dimension to Lutz that people forget about and that is that long before he was the preeminent product guru in this business he cut his teeth in marketing and advertising. He’s no stranger to that aspect of this business at all, and he definitely does have a feel for it.

And as I’ve said often in this column if you don’t know Lutz or have never worked with him, well, then, you really don’t know him. He is one of the most contemporary people I know, and you had best put that whole “age” thing aside, because if you have the occasion to spend any time with Bob at all you quickly realize that he is on point all the time and nothing fazes him or gets past him.

I had the opportunity to work with Lutz back during one of my career stints in advertising when I was the creative director on Dodge. Besides having the distinct pleasure of presenting creative work through the haze of the cigar smoke generated by Lutz (and Lee Iacocca) in ad meetings, Bob was always tough and relentlessly focused.

I remember one particular episode when I was working with director Tim Newman, the very first MTV Video Awards Best Director for his visionary work on behalf of ZZ Top - “Legs,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” etc. Tim and I had collaborated before while I was at Pontiac when we did an enduringly famous spot for the 1984 Trans-Am that was used for many years by Pontiac marketers as a barometer for what the Pontiac attitude was and should be all about.

In this case, I needed a blistering spot for the ’87 Dodge Daytona Shelby Z because we were desperately trying to inject some life and credibility to the brand while getting as far away as possible from the hoary “K-car” imagery. Tim and I came up with another rendition of the classic boy drives like a bat-out-of-hell, stops at diner, picks up hot waitress, and disappears on down the road story, and not only that, we cast it with very contemporary looking L.A.-based talent, including the male lead who had lengthy hair down to his shoulders.

Not something you’d expect Lutz to go for, at least your impression of him anyway, right?

Though not really approving of the look of the people personally (they were definitely counter to his Marine sensibilities) and knowing full well he could have killed the finished spot right then and there, he let it fly because he knew that it was exactly what was needed to move the needle on the car and Dodge.

No, that little remembrance doesn’t make Lutz an ad genius, but make no mistake - he is very open-minded and very knowledgeable about the whole marketing/advertising “thing.” He listens, he studies, and he very much “gets” it, and I have no doubt he is more than up to the task of his new position. (I have subsequently gotten to know Bob much better during the course of doing this publication over the last decade, and I can safely say that he will definitely "bring it" in his new role.)

But Lutz can’t transform GM’s image alone, just as he couldn’t rejuvenate GM’s product portfolio alone.

On the product side he exhorted GM’s engineers and designers to push harder and go further. He camped on Ed Welburn’s doorstep, and together they transformed the look and feel of GM’s product portfolio, while he radically transformed GM’s global product development process at the same time. Lutz accomplished a great deal over the last nine years, and without his stellar efforts we would not be talking about GM in any cautiously positive tones at this juncture.

On the image side of the equation he will simply need to engage the Best and the Brightest on GM’s behalf, and wherever he can find them too. That means he will need to enlist some serious players to help pitch-in down at the RenCen, because GM’s marketing ranks are notoriously depleted and, shall we say, overwhelmed by the task at hand, to put it charitably.

Don’t be surprised if he turns the current agency roster upside down and goes looking for new blood, too, because GM needed a new image yesterday, and any time wasted from here on out will be time they just cannot afford to squander.

Lutz is a singular figure in this business and a true renaissance man when it comes to his interests, both personal and professional. He is charismatic, strong-willed, extremely talented, whip-smart and relentless in his passion for this business and in his eagerness to turn GM around.

So those in the business who think they know how all of this will turn out might be surprised. You can hold all of the preconceived notions that can be mustered about Lutz in this new position that you want, but I will offer a few words of caution while you’re doing that: Underestimate Lutz at your peril.

Let's let him say how it’s going to be...

“We’re going to shift resources,” he told Automotive News last Friday. “We’re going to have design have a powerful influence on public relations and advertising and vice versa. It’s really going to be, for the first time, an integrated communications approach.” He went on to say that GM will be “less worried about ‘Gee, what is somebody going to think?’” And, “We’re going to go from being very defensive and risk-averse in communications” and become “much bolder in getting our story out.”

We shall see...

I believe that the Bob Lutz image-building stint for GM will be the most fascinating one to watch of his already lengthy and fabulously accomplished career.

And besides, it’s only the future of the new General Motors Co. that’s riding on him getting it right.

Thanks for listening.

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I stated in another thread the things GM needed to do and the one I stated most was Marketing, Marketing, Marketing and yes Marketing.

With Bob he understands it and will empower those in GM marketing to do the job they have not and could not do in the past. The biggest issue is when GM marketed it was not that it was all that bad all the time it was the fact it vanished on each model 6 months after intro. Then of late when the money was gone it just did not happen.

Take the Cobalt and HHR SS. models. Both of these are very respectable cars but have you seen a print ad or tv spot? I know for the HHR SS they did a intro at Woodward Cruise and that was it. Some good short press stories and word of mouth has been it.

Just look at the Saturn line up. they had some damn good cars but seldom pointed out models in their advertising. They sold Saturn not the Sky, Astra or Aura.

Even if Bob does not get it totally right anything he does will be 100% better than they have done in 10 years.

The merging of the man with product planning and marketing will make things simpler and more effective. Also Bob is to the point like Lee and tells it like it is. SOme may like it or hate it but he is hanest with what he believes. That in this say and age of lying polititians and business people a guy like Bob is a freash voice just as Lee was in the 80's.

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I think it's about damn time that GM got aggressive with its advertising.

I've only been preaching that here for 4-5 years now. It's time for war! (Has been)

The ONLY way to get the message out over the default import brands AND the GM hating media is to get aggressive and be the biggest, baddest dog in the pound. If you get my drift.

(Then again, if I were in charge, I would've actually been using the same gorilla techniques that Toyota has been using for a decade. If you want to beat a competitor, you must attack the competitor. NOT just defend yourself from an attack, especially if there are multiple attackers)

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