Detroit City Limits

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

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.