Q&A: Wilhite on What’s Wrong With Auto Marketing

For a period of nine months, between September 2007 and the end of May 2008, Steve Wilhite, the man who brought us the “Drivers Wanted” campaign in 1995 at VW and the “Shift_” ad platform at Nissan, was without a daily job. His name was part of the rumor mill, of course, some having him packing up for Dearborn, Mich., to handle the Ford job that Jim Farley eventually landed as head of marketing. Others had him going to General Motors to shore up its marketing. Instead, Wilhite confounded many in May by accepting the job as president of Jumpstart Automotive Media, an automotive interactive agency that works with automakers and third party auto Web sites with the goal of maximizing their Web marketing. The 1998 Brandweek Marketer of the Year came to the job at San Francisco-based Jumpstart still smarting from a rocky 13 months as COO of Hyundai, during which he failed to meet U.S. sales goals that some experts regarded as improbable. After stepping down at Hyundai, Wilhite spent some time at a home he owns in New Zealand, “decompressing and relaxing,” he said. He read books, hiked, swam and lived a marketing-free life. Wilhite met with Brandweek senior reporter Steve Miller last week to talk about his gigs, old and new, as well as the state of the auto industry as a whole.

Brandweek: What made you decide to go with Jumpstart?
Steve Wilhite: I had been in touch with Mitch [Lowe, CEO of Jumpstart] for some time. When I left Hyundai, the second call I got was from Mitch to talk about a role for me at Jumpstart. But I wasn’t ready. He sent me e-mails every couple of weeks and finally I just thought that this was a pretty interesting opportunity. I’ve worked in some very big environments and I was not sure I wanted to go back to that. The online place is where people are headed and need to be.

BW: An eMarketer study last month noted that the automotive category has dropped to No. 2 in overall ad spend, behind retail. Are some auto marketers still reluctant to plunge into digital?
SW: There are three dynamics at play in this drop. One, there is this constant pressure at the auto companies to reduce spending and to migrate from communication to incentives, like just advertising the money off on the hood. Second, automakers and their agencies haven’t been as strategic as they could be in balancing their marketing portfolios. That has to do with a number of things. There are prior relationships in place for one thing, and there is a higher level of comfort with traditional media that is hard to overcome. Finally, you have to see that retail is a huge category and more people in retail marketing are hip to interactive.

BW: New auto sales this year are headed for their lowest total in over a decade. Some of it is a function of the economy, some is that vehicles are better built and last longer. But some of it has to be the fault of marketing. What is the biggest marketing mistake being made collectively by the auto industry?
SW: The auto industry used to be the most powerfully branded category in the world. Each company had different characteristics and communicated those at every opportunity. The tipping point came when Lee Iacocca said, ‘Buy a car and get a check,’ [the rebate] promotion in the early ’80s. The whole focus of marketing resources changed. The money went to deal-oriented advertising, and then we began to see the erosion of brand loyalty and the commoditization of brands. I mean, really, for God’s sake, stop discounting products and extending these low financing terms.