Bill Ludwig

As one of seven kids, Ludwig, vice chairman and chief creative officer at Campbell-Ewald in Warren, Mich., had to learn how to cut through the clutter at an early age. It’s a skill that’s come in handy for the 48-year-old copywriter, best known for more than 20 years of Chevrolet advertising. A Tahoe owner who spends his downtime fly-fishing, bird-hunting and skiing, the Michigan native admits he also enjoys Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. “What show other than the Discovery Channel can you learn so much from?” asks Ludwig, whose new Pier 1 campaign stars design guru Thom Felicia.

Q. This year, C-E launched an ambitious effort for Chevrolet, “An American revolution,” which is a tagline you wrote. What’s the thinking behind the campaign?

A. I don’t think there has ever been so much new product introduced by any automotive company. We wanted to make a big, bold statement that this great American brand is re-energizing itself. We call Chevy the big dog on the streets, and that’s kind of the attitude we want to take.

C-E has a new Pier 1 campaign with Thom Felicia. What happened to Kirstie Alley?

[Pier 1] wanted something fresh, and there was an opportunity. Thom Felicia is not only hot right now, but he’s very credible. He’s an expert, and he’s good at what he does.

You’ve been with the agency for 20 years. How would you describe its culture?

I remember a New York colleague was taken aback by the brittle candor that was going around the table at a dinner that the Campbell-Ewald management team was at. I said, “Well, welcome to Detroit, where we stab you in the front.” And I think that’s it. There’s a really constructive competitive environment that goes on within the creative department.

What’s the biggest misconception about C-E?

I think people still think of us as just an automotive agency. We have grown from $1 billion to $2.2 billion in billings in just six years with accounts like the USPS, U.S. Navy, Pier 1, Michelin, Kaiser-Permanente. I had a CEO of a major global network approach me at a function not too long ago, and he said, “Would you guys leave us alone?”

What has had the greatest influence on your career?

Two forces. One is the appreciation and passion for great work. When I see it and admire it out there, I get inspired, and it influences me. What I love about this business and what ignites me about coming to work every day is the junior and entry-level talent at Campbell Ewald. They constantly inspire and influence me to stay fresh, to stay relevant and to look at the world from a very different perspective. It’s really nice to work with people who have unpolluted minds. It inspires you to clear your head of all the barriers and all the political, byzantine cobwebs that pollute our minds when we try and think of a fresh idea that will really resonate with consumers.

What’s the best car advertising out there besides your own?

It’s funny, I heard a quote from John Hegarty the other day, talking about how dreadful car advertising is, and I think it’s one of the best [categories]. The work that Mini’s doing is great. The work that Hummer is doing is great. I’ll tell you who’s doing surprisingly good work is Toyota—the Monster Truck spots. They’re all shot with a hand-held cam.

What’s the worst?

Dealer advertising that still shouts at you.

What was the last ad that made you think, “I wish I had done that”?

Sony PlayStation, “Mountain.” I love that. It was like when I saw the Levi’s “Odyssey.” To me, it’s big, and you wonder why in the hell don’t they bring that work to the U.S. I think the best advertising out there really demonstrates how a brand enhances the quality of life of the consumer. [“Mountain”] wasn’t talking about a feature, it wasn’t talking about even a benefit; it was talking about the quality of life of that product, just the whole emotion or experience of that product—”It’s time to play.”

What’s the smartest business decision you’ve ever made?

To buy my place in northern Michigan called High Banks. It’s a restored historical old lodge. The smartest decision I made in my career was not to go to Port Elizabeth, South Africa [for a job]. It was right before all hell broke loose during apartheid.

What about the dumbest?

To take advantage of the emerging worldwide wrestling phenomenon and use Big John Stud and Hillbilly Jim to sell Chevy pickup trucks [in a 1987 commercial]. And that is also the worst spot I have ever done. That is Best of Show on my reel of shame.

If you weren’t in advertising, what do you think you’d be doing today?

I’d be a fly-fishing guide.

Give me three words that describe you.

Oh, come on. There, that’s three.

OK, how about a few words other people would use to describe you?

Bon vivant, roguish, je ne sais quoi. I’m sure nobody says that about me, but it would be really cool, wouldn’t it?

What would people be most surprised to learn about you?

I’m a fishing god. I’m actually a really nice guy.