Detroit City Limits

A new generation of agencies is striving to redefine the auto industry

In the first six weeks after Chrysler launched its “Imported From Detroit” commercial on the Super Bowl, the Wieden + Kennedy spot generated nearly 10 million views on YouTube alone. Never mind that it was made by a Portland, Ore., agency for a company run by Italian Fiat executives who have been moving Chrysler’s manufacturing base to Mexico. The original two-minute commercial struck a patriotic chord, offering a defiant response to the city’s—and its eponymous industry’s—demonized image in popular media.

Last month, new Census data provided even more ammunition to the death of Detroit story. It showed that the city lost 25 percent of its population over the last decade, reducing it to the size it was in 1910, just after Henry Ford began selling his first Model T. Detroit inhabitants continue to flee a city of ravaged infrastructure and public services, bankrupt schools, abandoned buildings, and an industry that can no longer support them.

A city once emblematic of America’s industrial might will never return to its golden era of manufacturing. The formerly liberal electorate is turning to political outsiders–businessmen like Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and Republican Michigan Governor Rick Snyder—to turn a place built on union muscle into something more modern: businesses aligned with intellectual capital and services, technology, and entrepreneurial endeavors. But there’s still a small circle of nostalgists and optimists who believe in Detroit and in automobiles: the American adman.

There may not be a more co-dependent relationship in the marketing business. Advertising not only created the vast demand for new cars, but it also celebrated car culture. Having a car account was the sine qua non of agency status. You couldn’t be in the advertising big leagues without a major auto brand.

Arguably, as goes Detroit, so has gone the ad agency business–its former bravado and profitability laid low by Detroit’s long decline. A fair corollary might also be: If the executives of Detroit screwed up the business, their faithful admen retainers didn’t do the business any favors either.

But now it is not only a new set of auto execs trying to reinvent a new, albeit much smaller, American auto industry, but a new set of admen trying to reclaim, however wistfully, the Big Car Account, prompting the obvious question: Can you go home again?

Toby Barlow, the chief creative officer at Team Detroit, WPP’s joint venture of agencies dedicated to Ford, came to Detroit nearly five years ago after working in New York and San Francisco. He’s one of Detroit’s most vocal supporters–the industry and the city. He lives downtown in a Mies van der Rohe townhouse he bought for $100,000 and is part of a group of young entrepreneurs and artists moving into the city. He rides his bike on Detroit’s quiet, wide boulevards, the first to be built in America. He passes by urban ruins like the empty Michigan Central Depot–once the tallest rail station in the world–which remains majestic in its decay. There are blocks of once-neat rows of houses, structures that now stand burned or abandoned.

“As you ride, you get the feeling that this city was built for something great, that this was truly the American dream. Actually, this wasn’t a dream; it was the actuality of it. You could be an immigrant and get into the UAW and have a nice home and a place up north,” Barlow muses. “This city is a tragedy of success. The people who won left, and the people who were left behind are always the ones left behind. The decline in the perception of the automotive business and the decline of Detroit are inextricably connected.”

As is its recovery, General Motors is betting. The company—profitable again after shedding its debt during bankruptcy and emerging as a much smaller business—has kept its headquarters downtown in the massive Renaissance Center and asked its new out-of-town agencies like Goodby Silverstein & Partners, Fallon, and Big Fuel to set up shop there as well.

“It’s important they understand the local culture in which our company exists and that they be close to us. It’s also a part of our responsibility to help rebuild the city around us, to help with its tax base and re-energize downtown,” says Chris Perry, GM’s North American marketing head. “It’s been a humbling experience we’ve been through, but there is definitely a sense of rebirth and optimism here.”

After nearly 30 years in a single office in San Francisco, Goodby Silverstein is taking four floors in a Beaux Arts downtown building.

GS&P represents the ambitions and identity of the new Detroit: San Francisco hipsters moving into the decay of downtown. Jeff Goodby likes to make the uncool cool, and he’s already embarked upon a campaign to change the perception of Detroit through his public embrace of the place and poetic tweets about its ruinous beauty.

“I love Detroit, the people here, the spirit, the nearness of despair, the nearness of spectacular success. It is the American crossroads,” he tweets, adding in another: “Along with my hometown of Oakland, I am now convinced that Detroit is the most soulful city in our country.”

Wieden + Kennedy made Detroit itself a trope of Chrysler’s “Imported From Detroit,” which used Eight Mile native Eminem and other local talent in the voiceover and casting. Although Chrysler itself was initially worried the campaign would not play well outside the city, W + K creative director Joe Staples sensed that the city’s survival instincts even in the face of so much urban blight might touch a receptive nerve in the country.

Curiously, back before imports changed the playing field—when American cars sold themselves—a lot of Detroit marketers had little real regard for Madison Avenue despite the large amounts auto companies invested in advertising. Seeking to please their regularly dismissive overlords, agencies often produced typically bland and unimaginative work, full-product shots, consumer stereotypes, and winding roads. In recent years, when Chevy used ex-NFL player Howie Long as a spokesman, he came off as more of a front for the marketers in Detroit than probably intended: a white middle-aged jock in Dockers arrogantly poking fun at the Japanese competition.

Part of making a new Detroit—and hence a new auto industry—is to try to counter that history of white bread American blandness. Agency creatives in town now remind visitors about Detroit’s history of music and design. The birthplace of Berry Gordy’s roster of Motown artists also sits in the shadow of Cranbrook, the suburban academy associated with early American modernism and the likes of Eliel and Eero Saarinen, Ray and Charles Eames, and Florence Knoll. The Detroit Institute of Arts boasts significant works, including Diego Rivera’s famous 27-panel mural paying tribute to Ford autoworkers. Even in its demise, a new artistic photographic genre, “ruin porn,” draws its inspiration from Detroit’s decay.

Boosters see Detroit as part of the new urban sensibility. There’s a growing midtown creative community, and artists are paying little for distressed houses, turning them into creative installations. Intrepid bohemians are  setting up residences for visiting artists, many of whom come from Amsterdam, where like other places in Europe, Detroit is an iconic urban destination. A few new restaurants like Slows and Roast, bars and music clubs like Cliff Bells and D’Mongo’s Speakeasy—located between the city’s only synagogue and a strip club—are catering to the new urban pioneers. The Eastern Market spans six blocks and hosts hundreds of open-air farmers market stalls.

And yet, this is still Detroit. Even in the midst of its historical transformation, it manages to remain oddly the same as it always was. Twenty miles from the abandoned neighborhoods of downtown, industry types continue to live in lovely suburbs like Birmingham, a Midwest version of Greenwich, Conn., where they bump into each other at the same bars and swing away at the same country clubs. There’s not a single national grocery store within Detroit’s city limits, yet in Birmingham olive connoisseurs can find an entire establishment devoted to dozens of artesian oils and vinegars.

It was on Birmingham’s fairway greens where the lives of automakers and marketers convulsed. Chrysler went through four owners in 10 years. In 2000, the carmaker’s ad account was a $1.8 billion piece of business at BBDO, which employed more than 2,000 people on it. Last year, when Chrysler left BBDO, the agency’s staff had shrunk to 485. Over at General Motors, in the past 24 months, the company has had four CEOs at its largest division, Chevrolet. No wonder things didn’t bode well for Chevy’s agency Campbell-Ewald, which was axed last spring after working on the business for 91 years.

But now Detroit’s new guard has taken over. The industry’s engineers and financial execs who used to call the shots about advertising have been replaced by a different breed of marketers, people who are looking to create brand emotion beyond 30 seconds of product shots.

The Europeans who run Chrysler have also distanced themselves from the industry’s elite, clubby past. They are loathe to form agency-of-record relationships and want to keep agency partners on their toes through creative jump-ball competitions for assignments. As the old guard marketers have been replaced, so have traditional agency relationships. That’s led to some interesting changes like Chrysler’s naming of Global Hue, known largely as an ethnic marketing agency, as Jeep’s general market lead.

“When the business went from one that was relationship driven—one where advertising was a necessary evil—to one that is strategically driven, it gave a business like mine an opportunity,” says Don Coleman, Global Hue’s founder, CEO.

Even the people who presumably could pass for members of the old guard recall it was never easy to break into its previously tight circles. Team Detroit’s chief, George Rogers, had been traveling to Detroit for 20 years while working on other car accounts. Echoing other out-of-towners interviewed for this story, he likens that experience to being an ex-pat in a foreign country. After eventually moving to Detroit in 2005 to run Ford for JWT, he recalls meeting with one of the local-agency establishment heads and being treated as a “carpetbagger, a boy in short pants.”

Agencies like Team Detroit were among the few that were able to weather client’s misery–it’s kept its Ford relationship intact. But the agency not only welcomes outsiders, creative chief Barlow also cultivates them, bringing in freelancers and out-of-town agencies like Mutt, from Portland.

Which brings us back to the new wave of industry interlopers moving into one of the most incestuous bastions of American advertising. GS&P’s Goodby is in Detroit every few weeks, stays downtown, and has joined the Detroit Athletic Club to get in the occasional game of squash. He’s met with the mayor’s office about taking on marketing pro bono initiatives. GS&P’s Detroit ranks will be around 130 when the agency is fully staffed, picking up people from many of the traditional Detroit shops.

“We’re taking the recombinant DNA of these new people from those agencies, and we want to add a real infusion of us,” he says, looking out at Detroit’s urban expanse. “We’re serious about the opportunity here for a great new office in the Midwest.”

The great marketers of the time seem to have succeeded, if not yet in convincing the market, then at least in convincing themselves. Indeed, the elements of a real revival may be in place: an industry full of new blood and free of old debts, a city on the cusp of hipness, and, as well, products that ain’t so bad. Certainly, it’s the ultimate campaign of any adman: restoring the prestige of the American car and its mythic city.

“The problem is consumer perception of American cars lags reality, and it’s hard to convince consumers who have been burned. Those of us who test cars know that American vehicles are becoming on par or better than Japanese autos,” says Jack Nerad, executive editorial director for auto valuation company Kelley Blue Book. But he sees an advantage for Detroit as car buyers skew younger.

“The aging baby boomers mostly drove imported cars, and companies like Toyota are in danger of becoming an old person’s brand,” he says. “Younger buyers are more agnostic about car origins and are not as automatically inclined to buy imported; they’re more motivated by a product they find interesting and fits their lifestyle.”

The secret of the American auto business has, arguably, always been admen. Some of the best of them are back, ready to reinvent Detroit, and themselves, along with it.