Three months ago, my company was selected as the advertising agency for Chevrolet, an experience that has felt variously like a patriotic mission, a quest to help revive a great city, and something out of The Fog of War.
Whatever you think about Chevrolet, I can almost guarantee that you do think something. The brand conjures a vivid mélange of imagery: a promised high technology that President Obama loves and George Will is skeptical about; a feeling that Chevy once led the parade of American carmakers who simply couldn't keep up with Japan and Germany; a feeling that they're sort of coming back; and the deep and abiding love of generations of guys with cigarettes rolled up in the sleeve of their white t-shirts, adjusting the engine timing with a bottle of Coke on the valve cover. Once upon a time, you were a Chevy or Ford or (rarely) Chrysler family. Most of us were Chevy types.
And then of course there are the songs, from Clapton to Springsteen to Charlie Daniels. Nobody ever gets a Toyota tattoo. Or as I often tell people, everything being equal, Americans still would rather buy Chevys. Or so I hope.
The depth of America's connection to Chevrolet means that everything we do as their agency is put under a massive microscope of business and personal analysis. Is our advertising going to work? Will it sell cars? Will it save Detroit? Will it save America? General Motors looms large in American corporate mythology, and Chevrolet is 70 per cent of GM.
It all started innocently enough.
Joel Ewanick, currently the head of marketing for all of GM, was our very successful client at both Porsche and Hyundai. He left Hyundai last year, and we went separate ways until one day we just happened to have lunch in Los Angeles. He told me he was interviewing for "the big job" at GM, and asked what I thought of the prospect.
"Are you kidding me?" I said. "If you're into car marketing, that's what you've got to want. You could be saving a great brand and millions of jobs. It's your duty to take it." I offered to call his wife and help talk her into moving to Detroit.
Joel smiled. "Well, if I get it, would you guys consider working on Chevrolet?" I felt like Chuck Yeager being asked if he wanted to fly the X-1. It was going to be dangerous and maybe even crazy, but this is what you do.
Sure enough, a month later there was an early morning message on my phone. Joel. "That thing I told you about? It's happening. And the other thing too. Strap yourself in."
Historically, Chevy has spent well over a half billion dollars a year on advertising and marketing. If they sneeze, it's endlessly dissected in automotive and financial blogs around the world. The news of our appointment preceded us to Detroit. "Wait a minute, y'all are the guys from San Francisco working on Chevy," a cab driver said as he overheard our excitement on our first trip there. "You could do a lot of good for this place. We're counting on you." There was a long silence in the car.
Detroit was the fourth largest city in the country 50 years ago. Since then, it has experienced what someone called "a slow-motion Katrina," with business and residents steadily leaving, turning the downtown into a patchwork of empty lots and abandoned 30-story buildings with rain blowing into broken windows. We decided to move into the heart of downtown and immediately felt the possibility all around us. You could open an office almost anywhere you looked. We were like squatters in a big urban Burning Man festival.
We moved into three floors above the lovely Fillmore Theater, 130 people right across from Comerica Park on the famous Woodward Avenue. The landlord showed us a tumbleweed he found bouncing down Woodward when he bought the building amidst fear and devastation in the seventies. Being here is still simultaneously exhilarating and ominous.
As is the job. Advertising Chevrolet is an interactive study of what Americans think and feel at any given moment. You have to gauge that psychological landscape and, whether you succeed or fail, you find out fast. Right after we got the assignment, a memo leaked out of Chevrolet in which a high level executive considered the idea of forbidding people to call the company "Chevy." People went nuts. The Times ran the story on its front page. Evidently, you cannot tell the American public what to call their Chevrolets.
I was immediately called by every news service and accused of planting the memo as a marketing trick. I laughed and said I had nothing to do with it.
"Oh, you're good," said a reporter from the Wall Street Journal. "You're really good."
In the week before our first work was released, the Detroit Free Press leaked the news that our theme line would be "Chevy runs deep." It was immediately greeted as "the worst theme line ever" by the car blogger jalopnik.org, whose opinion was Facebooked and re-Tweeted across cyberspace before a single piece of advertising had ever run.
I'm happy to report that reviews since then have been significantly more kind -- as has press reaction to the new Chevys, especially the Cruze and the plug-in Volt, which Motor Trend named their Car of the Year this week. There is a spring in our step.
Also this month, of course, GM has tested the waters of a public offering. Things seem to have gone well, in the early going. We created a commercial for the event that thanked the American public for helping GM in a time of need. It was likewise greeted with either gracious admiration or unbridled scorn -- not much in between. Everybody seemed to notice, however.
The effect the public offering will have on perceptions of Chevrolet itself is not clear. Our research shows that while opinions of GM are somewhat mixed, people's feelings about Chevrolet have remained significantly sunnier. The offering will certainly act as one big public report card on GM right now, but also a gauging of our collective faith in what it could be. Last night, we looked out our office windows onto a virtually empty Woodward Avenue and tried to imagine a rush hour of shining Chevy products.
"I feel like I'm in a movie," I have been telling people, "the ending of which has not yet been revealed." I wouldn't trade it for anything.