Some marketing chiefs happily outsource creativity to their agencies. Olivier François, the CMO of Fiat Chrysler, is not one of those people.
"I have a great relationship with the agencies because I don’t expect them to do my job," he said. "They just do theirs. My expectation is they feed me with inspiring ingredients, and I take things from there."
Among his agencies, François is famous for his hands-on approach to getting good creative, and for his willingness to mix-and-match brands with creative partners. Yes, Goodby Silverstein and Partners recently became AOR for Chrysler; DDB is AOR for Jeep; Fiat technically belongs to FCB; GSD&M is AOR for Dodge and The Richards Group is AOR for Ram Trucks. But François doesn’t believe in exclusivity. Instead, he believes in "the spark," he says, and that spark can come from anywhere.
For example, last year’s Super Bowl commercial for Jeep, "Portraits," originated from iris worldwide—not DDB. Other agencies that have ignited the CMO’s creative spark include Doner, Lopez Negrete, Footsteps, Alma DDB, Trailer Park, Art Machine, Mind Over Eye, Argonaut and McGaryBowen. Although Alfa Romeo does not have an AOR, Doner and Art Machine created two of its Big Game spots this year. The Richards Group was behind the third.
"We are here to make money," he said. "So I need another recipe. Otherwise, the most effective message would just be the one with the most money behind the media plan.
Though FCA saw a remarkable spike in profit in 2016—$1.9 billion, up from just $100 million the year before, when restructuring and recall costs took a toll—the company has begun 2017 on a down note. In January, sales declined for Chrysler (39 percent), Dodge (17 percent), Fiat (9 percent) and Jeep (7 percent), with only Dodge (5 percent) and Alfa Romeo (59 percent) showing gains. Nevertheless, the company’s stock is up 70 percent in the past three months.
We asked François about his approach to creativity, his thoughts on branding and the changing face of FCA’s customer. The interview, which took place over the phone and by email, has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
What role do you believe the client plays in creative development of the work?
It is up to us to immerse our agencies in the brands. It is our job to give the agencies the background they need to understand and "feel" what each brand stands for, as each has its own personality and core values.
In the truest sense, our agencies are our creative partners. We are in constant collaboration with them throughout the creative process. We’ve actually heard from some of our newer agency partners, who are just getting to know the more intimate role we have in the process – conversations around scripting, editorial, thoughts we may have on music, how the music wants to play around the film, and so on – that the input they get from us makes the work better. They are open to it.
What is your method for getting the best work out of your agencies?
There are three key factors: One, the briefing process is critical. It’s not about giving a 30,000-foot brief and sending the agency along its way. We want the agencies to have the latitude to create, dream and push the barriers. But at the same time, we want to make sure the objectives are very clear, so they are not wasting their time.
Two, ongoing dialog is critically important. Constant dialogue and idea-sharing sessions. A lot of collaboration is key throughout the creative-development process.
Three, trying to find interesting assignments is also key. We do a lot of custom campaigns for high-profile media events. Having fun, different creative opportunities in between the more routine or usual projects keeps the agencies motivated.
How important is advertising in the marketing mix for Fiat Chrysler?
The beauty of today’s fragmented media landscape is that there are now nearly unlimited ways to reach our intended consumers, and you need to have a presence wherever your customers are. Many variables determine what that mix will be—product, target demographics, etc. It also depends on what we want to communicate. National broadcast is still great for building awareness, for making an impact and reaching a huge audience at one time. Retail or Tier 2 advertising—whether it’s TV, print, digital or social—is important when we’re trying to reach customers in the "lower funnel" of the purchasing process. Digital and social advertising can do both and are great ways to engage our customers. Mobile marketing can be very targeted and is a great tool for our brands and dealers. Experiential events are also an important element for creating a dialogue with consumers and getting people to experience our vehicles and their capabilities firsthand.
At FCA, we use high-profile media events to make a statement and reach certain demographics. We often develop relevant custom creative for these high-profile media events. Recent examples include the Jeep "Free to Be" campaign, which debuted during the presidential debates, American Music Awards to reach millennials and the Ram Trucks "Praise" video, which ran Thanksgiving Day.
The way people buy cars is evolving. What platforms excite you as ways to reach potential buyers?
Millennials don’t totally buy into traditional advertising; that’s for sure. They consume more digital content than the previous generations, so I think that there’s more room for branded content. Will it sell cars in the short term? No, not at all. Can it influence consideration? Yes, it can. I think we have to be very cautious about all this.
I’ve got a couple of meetings with some entrepreneurs from the digital world that are launching their new platforms, so we want to be the first to have access to them. It’s not easy. Leveraging these new solutions to get our product in front of these new audiences is great, but then proving with KPIs that this is going to deliver short-term sales, this is more challenging.
Which one of your brands keeps you up at night?
What keeps me up at night is not one brand, but it is the potential overlapping of these brands. Take Dodge and Chrysler. Not so long ago, they tended to overlap. When you had a Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town and Country—two minivans—parked 10 feet from each other in the same showroom, you couldn’t tell them apart. Clearly that’s no longer the case.
The last thing you want to do is confuse people with the messaging. Chrysler messaging cannot be misunderstood or interpreted as Dodge messaging. You have one American performance brand; that’s Dodge. You have an American family transportation solution; that’s Chrysler. You have an Italian performance brand; that’s Alfa Romeo. And so on. You have Jeep, which is obviously our SUV brand. While Ram, which is no longer a part of Dodge, is the only brand on the market that is 100 percent pickup trucks. You want to create and keep building very distinct and solid personas, and so it helps your product to engage with a distinct and unique customer target.
So when it comes to creative and agencies and the whole process, the first question I ask myself is, what makes this creative idea uniquely ownable by Alfa Romeo? Or by Dodge? Or by Chrysler? Then we get into the details. What makes the music uniquely ownable by Jeep? What makes the voiceover uniquely ownable by Jeep? In every detail—the filming, the photography, the choice of the words—everything must keep building. That’s what we’ve been doing since 2009. Eight years later, I think we’ve done an okay job building these brand personas. Building brand equity takes time, but the sense of urgency [to sell cars] can’t hurt the brand equity that we have been working so hard to build. It doesn’t take much to destroy brand equity.
Are you satisfied with the level of transparency from your media and creative agencies? If not, are you doing anything about it?
I’m very passionate about this. One of my biggest challenges since 2009 has been to take back our purchasing on most of the process. What you may hear from our agencies is that they do not have control on the production process anymore. We created a roster of production companies as we have a roster of agencies, and then we will directly source productions centrally.
I am, clearly, extremely adverse to the system [in which] the agency coordinates the effort and brings the whole thing together. What I expect from the agencies are creative ideas, period. Then we have control on the way these ideas turn into an asset. This is very important, because when you operate on a global level, that’s the only way to [have] visibility on how your money is being spent.
After years of consecutive monthly growth, Jeep sales declined in September, and have continued to drop since. What is the plan for getting that brand back on track?
The main opportunity and challenge for Jeep is the same: the booming SUV market. It’s becoming a very crowded pond. Every brand does SUVs now, so what we really need to reaffirm is our leadership, the fact that Jeep invented the SUV back in 1941. We lead the SUV. We are legitimate, we invented it, we own it.
In 2015, then-CMO of Mars, Bruce McColl, said that he wants his agencies to know that they can fail, and in October, P&G's Marc Pritchard argued that marketers should "lower the pressure on agencies," and that the "negative narrative needs to stop." Do you agree?
Our philosophy is different. I’m not familiar with the matter at all. This is the first time I’m hearing about it. This sounds like CMOs who tremendously rely on their agencies for marketing. Here, we are really not agency-dependent. One thing is sure, the only thing that lasts forever are the brands and the brand values and what the brand stands for.
I rely on my team to create, and the role of the agencies—not to minimize it, because they are essential—is to stimulate our internal creative process. The best ideas are not created by briefs; they are found. A brief means boundaries, so you don’t want to put creativity in a cage. What is in a brief? It’s the product detail, the features. What are the demographics of the people that we are going to sell to? This is our job, to make the message fit with the demographics, and it is our job to leverage the message to speak to the product features.
I think the people who put the brief before the initial spark, before the inspiration, are mistaken. Inspiration first, and then we will channel the inspiration in a brief. Just yesterday, I was looking at some old creative pitched by another agency, in another region of the world, for another brand, in another time. And I just stumbled on music, and the creative was not good. And the agency is maybe not even around anymore, and it is an old pitch for a product that is long gone. But that music just found a home yesterday because it is going to perfectly come together with an idea that had been circulating for another product, for another brand, in another region, by a new agency. And the thing would just be perfect. So you see, this is what we need to do.