Why GM Named 77-Year Old Lutz CMO

Bob Lutz, at 77, is not the obvious choice to be General Motors’ new chief of marketing. While he has a blog, I’m pretty sure he dictates it to others to type in. He has no Facebook page, and I am not aware that he tweets.

Despite a few overly honest declarations about global warming that reflect his conservative leanings, GM CEO Fred “Fritz” Henderson asked Lutz to again delay his retirement, and take on a bit more responsibility, because of his judgment.

Bob may have a voice that sounds like he gargles with battery acid and cigar ashes, but he has an a nearly impeccable sense of what looks right. That’s why former GM CEO G. Richard Wagoner Jr. tapped him in 2001 to become GM’s product chief. Lutz took, for example, a dud of a mid-size sedan, the Chevy Malibu, remade it, and turned it into the 2008 North American Car of the Year. That came a year after its sister car built on the same engineering platform, the Saturn Aura, took the honor in 2007.

Interior designs of GM cars under Lutz now rival those of Volkswagen and Audi.

Lutz was set to hang around as an advisor the rest of this year at GM and then figure out how to amuse himself again in semi-retirement. But one thing has eaten at Lutz the last three or four years. While he has put world-class cars and trucks on the road, too few people have noticed. The word’s not out. Drives him bats.

I have talked to Lutz about advertising on several occasions. He is not so big on decisions made about advertising and marketing based on “tests.” Every crappy ad campaign, after all, “tested great” before it crashed and burned on their air, he says. And he is right.

Bob gets this. So, what I expect is that he will read the “test” results. But he is now in a position to say, “No…this is stupid. I’m not paying for this.”

I recall a few years back when Buick launched this impossibly bad idea for an ad campaign featuring an actor, John Diehl, playing legendary GM designer Harley Earl. Okay, Earl is legendary in Detroit and in auto design circles, but not so much in the bowling alley in Gary, Indiana or the Starbucks in Westfield, N.J. And that’s why it was stupid. GM turned to a dead guy to sell Buick, which, at the time, had an average age buyer of “terminal.”

I asked Lutz what he was thinking. He explained that he and Wagoner thought it was a really dumb idea, too, but that the then-head of Buick brand believed in it. The system at GM has rotated finance, service and even engineering people into marketing roles at the company. They, in turn, become captive to the big ad agencies in town, which look after them like ten- year olds at a high school dance.

So, the idea of deferring huge marketing decisions to people not trained or experienced in marketing has led GM down this path of ruin where its brands stand for very little. The ad strategies, changed as often as oil filters, have created chaos and instability around GM’s brands.

GM has long been very big on protecting and preserving “the way it does things.” The GM Way. Part of that arrogance, that led it into Chapter 11, was letting brand chiefs hang themselves or thrive on their own decisions. The only time the higher-ups, like the CEO, seemed to get overly involved was when an ad ran afoul of some so-called self-appointed moral authority.

The appointment of Lutz to lead marketing is a sign that that era is over.

Lutz has a way of filling up any room he is in. His power at GM has been that no one else in any room he was in had better judgment on how a car should look or feel when you drive it. And everyone else in the company knew it.

Lutz is not trained in marketing. But he has gravitas and a way of pushing stupidity down the hole from whence it came. He is not perfect. Let’s not forget the Pontiac GTO he brought in from Australia. And the jury is out on the styling of the new Buick LaCrosse. And he tried to convince me that making GM’s loser minivans look more like SUVs was going to put them on the map against Chrysler and Honda.

Lutz, a former Marine, strides like a General around GM. A good General. More Omar Bradley than George Patton. The product line, thanks to him, is well-fixed and on track. Quality, design and craftsmanship of vehicles is top-drawer. What comes next is redefining the message and the system through which the new GM creates the message.

He has been given the authority to red-light and deep-six really bad ideas regardless of whose feelings get hurt. He is 77 and with no ambition or prospect to be CEO. That makes him valuable, and dangerous to GM’s long-time ad agencies, at least two of which probably need to be replaced despite many decades of service to GM.

My guess is that CEO Henderson realizes he needs a junk-yard dog, albeit one with demonstrated great judgment, with nothing to lose to go in and shake up every corner of the way GM speaks to the public.

And Bob’s the guy.

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