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Big Ideas in Detroit and on Wall Street

A former advertising chairman looks at the branding efforts of U.S. carmakers and wonders what ‘big ideas’ they stood for

Hardly a day passes that someone doesn’t ask me, as a former advertising agency executive, what I think of “Mad Men,” the cable TV series about a fictional ad agency in the 1960s named Sterling Cooper. The program portrays a business infused with incessant drinking, smoking and women being demeaned, all of which went on in those days but really did not characterize the business, at least not in my vicinity. There is one historical inaccuracy – nobody called people on Madison Avenue “Mad Men.” That’s a producer’s invention, but a victimless crime. The show has done well enough to be exported to the U.K., where it was given “historical context” with a special BBC program, “David Ogilvy: Original Mad Man.”

If Ogilvy, who died in 1999 at 88, had in fact been anything like the “mad men” in the TV series, he probably wouldn’t have become the most famous advertising man of his time. He was a sober if relentless advocate of a handful of principles of effective advertising. One of his most ardently held beliefs remains relevant today, not least in Detroit and on Wall Street. “Unless your advertising is based on a Big Idea, it will pass like a ship in the night.”

The problems of the American car business have been well-documented – poor quality, onerous labor contracts, nonexistent credit, and an economy in free-fall.  As a disciple of Ogilvy’s (he was my boss for many years), let me point to one more problem that deserves attention. While Detroit is frantically and appropriately cutting costs, we should remember that businesses aren’t built on cost reduction but on ideas – in the product and in advertising.

As I look at current automotive advertising, I see a parade of bland commercials highlighting technical product features I suspect most people don’t understand. Or they quack on about pricing and leasing deals. The problem is not limited to Detroit.

I keep searching for big advertising ideas like the counter-culture “Think Small” or “Lemon” ads for Volkswagen, Volvo’s campaign on the safety of its cars, commercials that showed Jeeps climbing impossible hills, “The Ultimate Driving Machine” to encapsulate BMW’s superior features, or commercials demonstrating Mercedes-Benz cars’ extraordinary performance on test tracks – captured in the line “Engineered like no other car in the world.”

The void of such ideas in car advertising today may have become inevitable years ago when the Big Three neglected quality, squeezed costs in design, and marketed almost identical cars (e.g., Ford Taurus and Mercury) under different brand names.  But they continue to compound their problems with advertising campaigns that are undistinguished and indistinguishable from each other.

Ogilvy was fortunate to have a client with a uniquely superior product, Rolls-Royce.  He searched for an idea, a way to evoke its superiority in a single sentence.  That led to the most famous headline in the car business:  “At 60 miles an hour, the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce is the sound of the electric clock.”  That ad ran in just two newspapers and two magazines, but sold so many cars the company didn’t dare run it again – it didn’t have enough production. “Just think what would happen if Ford, Chrysler or General Motors hired Ogilvy, Benson & Mather,” Ogilvy mused to a fellow executive.

Ironically, the value of a Big Idea is on view in the current meltdown at Citigroup. As its CEO tries to juggle parts of this unwieldy monster, one unit has been repeatedly cited as its crown jewel, Smith Barney. When Smith Barney came to Ogilvy’s agency, it was a small brokerage house with a classy reputation but a low profile.  The agency team discovered one distinguishing factor that might set it apart from larger rivals – its reputation for outstanding investment research.  That became the basis for a Big Idea, a campaign in which actor John Housman gruffly proclaimed what the firm stood for:  “They make money the old-fashioned way.  They earn it.”  The ads talked about how the firm’s diligent research earned results for its clients.

David Ogilvy didn’t write either the Smith Barney line or the commercials, but their success in helping build the firm’s reputation does reflect another, now pervasive, Ogilvy principle. “Every advertisement is part of the long-term investment in the personality of the brand.”  He became known as “the apostle of brand image.”  Because every Smith Barney commercial and print advertisement expressed the same personality, the same brand image, year after year, what was a small brokerage house has become a swing factor in the future of the largest financial institution on Wall Street.  Because so much Detroit advertising is passing invisibly in the night, with little differentiation that builds strong brands, its other problems are magnified.

As to the TV show “Mad Men,” my favorite response comes from an agency friend who said, “I quite liked it, once I understood it wasn’t about advertising.” 

Kenneth Roman, former Chairman of Ogilvy & Mather, is the author of The King of Madison Avenue: David Ogilvy and the Making of Modern Advertising.  His collaborator on the book, Joel Raphaelson, also collaborated on this column.


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