Wilhite Moves From Nissan To Hyundai For Top Gig

Nissan global marketing chief Steve Wilhite resigned his post at the Japaneser automaker and will take over as chief operating officer at Hyundai Motor America effective Aug. 16.

For close observers of Nissan and Wilhite, this was not an unexpected move. While Wilhite put Nissan’s advertising and marketing on the right track a few years ago in North America with the “Shift” campaign by TBWA/Chiat Day, his role as global chief marketing officer seemed rocky and not as satisfying. Why? With no real budget, Wilhite had to shop the Shift strategy around to different regions of the world. He had no mandate or authority to make anyone do it his way. With language barriers on top of the whole problem, it was not a very attractive job for an executive with Wilhite’s track record and talent for being right about marketing strategy.

Before Nissan, Wilhite was CMO at Apple, working for Steve Jobs. And before that, he really made his name as head of marketing at Volkswagen of America in the mid and late 1990s when Volkswagen was climbing out of the abyss and seemed to do everything right—especially advertising and marketing.

Wilhite arrives at Hyundai at just the right time. The brand is on a roll, good product and plenty of accolades from J.D. Power for quality, something Hyundai didn’t used to be known for. Hyundai’s advertising has been lately done by The Richards Group of Dallas. Despite being located in Dallas (sorry, Texans, but it’s a lousey town for restaurants, weather and architecture), The Richards Group is a very good agency. The “Drive Your Way” and “Rethink Everything” work it’s been running has been quite good.

But Hyundai is looking for a sure hand to help guide it to the next level in the areas of product, and especially brand. That’s where Wilhite comes in. No marketing one-trick exec, Wilhite has been around the block in every sales and marketing job in the business. And he knows product. Most importantly, he has terrific instincts.

Back when Volkswagen was searching for a new ad agency in the mid 1990s, Wilhite once told me, they heard presentations from four agencies. One, an agency based in Dallas (yes, The Richards Group) had the account all but locked up. In the preliminary rounds and visits, everybody in the group liked the agency. But during Arnold, Fortuna, Lawner’s presentation, the agency’s audi-visual equipment broke down. The agency exec leading the pitch, paused, looked at the equipment, and transitioned cooly to making the rest of the pitch without AV. Though Wilhite’s wasn’t the only vote, his opinion carried the most weight. His instinct was that a group who handled themselves so well under pressure, plus the good work they showed, was the right agency for VW. Arnold went on to produce work for VW that set the standard in advertising creativity for about seven years. My guess is that Wilhite still has affection for Richards, will recognize the good work, and won’t need to make any changes as he lends a deft client hand to the marketing going forward.

In fact, I have only found myself seriously at odds with Wilhite over the years. Last April, he told me he thought Volkswagen’s idea of re-naming the Golf hatchback “Rabbit,” going back to the name the car had in the 1970s and early 1980’s was a bizarrely terrible idea. “Brain dead,” he called it. I still disagree, and think the idea will work to propel a car that had almost no following in the U.S. Hey…he can’t be right all the time.

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