A New Spark Plug For Cadillac

Brand-fixer Liz Vanzura aims to do for Caddy what she did for Hummer

When Liz Vanzura took over global marketing for Cadillac in mid-January after a five-year stint running advertising for General Motors Corp.'s (GM ) Hummer brand, she saw an immediate problem. The 60-second commercial created by agency Leo Burnett Worldwide Inc. (PUB ) for the Feb. 5 Super Bowl, an expensively produced surreal fashion show featuring the redesigned Cadillac Escalade on a runway emerging from a pool of liquid chrome, was a wreck. Fearing embarrassment at the game, held in Cadillac's hometown, and hearing the displeasure among GM's brass over the dull spot, Vanzura spent more than a week trying to re-edit the ad. But it wasn't salvageable -- and scored near the bottom of consumer surveys on the game's ads.

To Vanzura, 41, the remedy was clear: Within weeks, she yanked half of Cadillac's $300 million-plus ad business from Burnett, whose Detroit office has managed Cadillac advertising for more than 75 years. Then she hired Boston-based Modernista!, which has created Hummer advertising with Vanzura since the military brand's relaunch under GM in 2001. That shop will now make ads for Cadillac's CTS, SRX, and all of Caddy's V-Series performance cars, and it could easily snare the rest of the business with a good showing. Burnett had no comment.

Stripping half an account from one agency and giving it to another may not sound like a breakthrough idea for an auto maker reeling from losses and rumored to be drifting toward bankruptcy. But at GM, which spends more than $4 billion a year on U.S. advertising and where some of its agency relationships go back to the days before television, the move signifies radical change. The decisive act by Vanzura, who has rising influence and is now on her second brand, busts a company bureaucracy that has long relied more on the weight of its media budget than on compelling ad ideas to sell cars. In fact, GM is now adding smaller, less institutional agencies to compete for creative duties on its brands and new models. "TiVo (TIVO ) and the remote control are killing us," says Vanzura. "We have to give consumers more reasons to listen to what we have to say."

That's a familiar refrain from any advertiser. But at GM, hidebound relationships between the carmaker and agency executives have often squelched attempts to shake up advertising. There's also a tendency to worry about offending red-state markets where GM is strongest. A Hummer ad created by Modernista that ran on the Super Bowl and the Academy Awards -- and scored well with consumers and ad critics -- depicts a giant robot and Godzilla-like monster falling in love and procreating the new Hummer H3 (the baby Hummer). Vanzura says one GM executive seriously questioned whether it would be better, in the name of moral rectitude, to have the mommy monster wear a wedding ring. Vanzura also stood up to objections from GM product boss Robert A. Lutz, who criticized an ad for the Hummer H2 in 2004 that showed a boy in a wooden soapbox-derby H2 instead of the real SUV. The ad won multiple awards, and Lutz later admitted he had been wrong.


Vanzura is emerging as the nearest thing GM has ever had to an internal creative director. Burnett, which also handles Pontiac ads, "had been on shaky ground for a couple of years," says one GM insider. But it took Vanzura to pull the trigger. And if she does for Caddy what she did at Hummer, and Volkswagen before that, she'll probably be moved to another brand or given a larger role where she can touch all GM products. Says sales and marketing chief Mark LaNeve: "She's going to shake things up around here.... There are no sacred cows anymore."

LaNeve made his bones at GM fixing the Cadillac brand when he greenlighted a campaign in 2001 featuring the music of rock band Led Zeppelin despite executive-suite worry that it might alienate Cadillac's white-shoe buyers. LaNeve has been gone from day-to-day management of the brand since 2004 and laments that the ads have "lost the edge." Still, though Cadillac sales were flat last year at 235,000 cars, it's in better shape than, say, Pontiac, Buick, or Saturn. Indeed, the comeback of Cadillac has been held up as a model for GM's other struggling divisions, so it can't afford to let its luxury brand slip before the others are fixed.

Other shakeups at GM are on the table. The auto maker recently gave New York-based maverick ad agency Deutsch Inc. a small piece of its Chevrolet business, an ad account held by Campbell-Ewald in Warren, Mich., since 1921. Deutsch also has developed a strategy for Pontiac, which is still handled, for now, by Leo Burnett. "The buzzword for advertisers now is 'roster,"' says Richard Kirshenbaum, co-chairman of New York agency Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners LLC, which is among several agencies that work transiently for Coca-Cola Co. (KO ) and Target Corp. (TGT ). "Advertisers are increasingly rounding up agencies and shopping for the best work they can get rather than locking themselves into one agency," he says.

Like many big companies, GM rotates sales, finance, and even purchasing managers into ad and marketing posts, and those neophytes have looked upon a big ad agency with decades of service to GM as a welcome safety net. Vanzura represents a new breed at GM that LaNeve wants more of: professional marketers confident enough to take risks.

Vanzura's record goes back to the late 1990s, when she was Volkswagen's ad director, and Modernista CEO and creative chief Lance Jensen created ads at Boston's Arnold Worldwide Partners. "Volkswagen ads during that time set a creative standard for advertising in general, not just auto advertising," says independent marketing consultant Dennis Keene. The use of indie rock music and storytelling created buzz around the launch of the New Beetle and the entire brand. One memorable ad featured two college-age slackers in a VW Golf driving around and killing time to a German rock song that simply repeated the words "Da Da Da." They load an upholstered chair off the street into the hatchback, discover that it smells bad, and deposit it back on the curb.

Vanzura approved that off-beat ad over the doubts of her bosses and the refusal of most dealers to run it at all. But after parodies of it by David Letterman and others surfaced, it achieved huge buzz and is talked about by VW fans nearly a decade later. Vanzura's license to take risks and break the status quo reflects the sense of urgency around GM these days. After all, brands that don't overhaul the way they speak to the public may not even be around 10 years from now.

For a look at videos go to:

Hummer Big Race

Hummer Little Monster

Volkswagen Sunday Afternoon (Da Da Da)

By David Kiley

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