Detroit City Limits

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

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.

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