So I was quoted in the latest issue of Newsweek…
And I’m trying to be cool about it, but this kind of thing doesn’t happen everyday. I considered spending the morning riding the El around the Loop with the issue open on my lap, saying things a bit too loudly like “Now here’s an interesting point of view” or “This fellow seems to have something to say…”
It’s flattering to be asked for commentary by a national magazine, but it’s also an inevitable compromise: you talk to a journalist for twenty minutes or so and from all that, they select a single sentence that supports the point they need to make. It’s not that they misquote you; it’s simply that the story you hope to tell rarely matches the story they are telling.
Under the headline “Turn This Lemon Into Lemonade”, Newsweek writer Matthew Phillips asks six advertising people for their perspectives on the challenge of selling GM and Chrysler cars today. My quote reads “Show me plants shutting down, let me hear from the workers… That story’s powerful.” I definitely said that; the sad reality that America has shifted from manufacturing to service sector jobs bums me out and the long list of sins by boneheaded corporate and union management that led us here is soul-suckingly demoralizing.
But the larger point I’d hoped to make was that Detroit doesn’t need another ad right now–and certainly not more over-produced anthems like the “Reinvention” spot currently airing. This kind of clever speechifying, as much as it approaches a mea culpa admission of errors, still feels like more of the same: the requisite slowly-building rock track, the irrelevant NHL and NFL clips, the timelapse of seedlings sprouting, the barn raisings and sweaty-brow moppings–all of it reeks of yet another round of highly-polished obfuscation.
But as tough as things currently are, somewhere among GM’s 235,000 employees good people have great ideas and workable plans to change things: to improve fuel economy and engine reliability, to streamline production and lower mistakes, to ratchet up aesthetics and bend metal into forms that make pulses pound again. Those stories need to be told, specifically and with rich detail. We need to know what GM is doing right now, today, this moment, to change their fortunes and set their ship right. These stories don’t require massive film crews and Panavision cameras to tell; in fact, they are far more effective without them. The honesty of documentary storytelling focused on sharing a constant stream of new stories would be far more effective than a few super slick generalizations.
Detroit does still need the massive reach of compelling television commercials to get their story out–but they should be producing great television commercials that not only turn heads on air but drive people to deeper, more complete engagement online with opportunities to weigh in and share their own opinions. Things like new car designs excite people–GM and Chrysler should share those and invite responses from the public, conducting polls and encouraging debate.
What Detroit needs now more than anything else is transparency. The time of an all-controlling, monolithic monopoly has passed; that mentality simply can’t sustain in today’s information-saturated culture. Moreover, truly leveraging modern manufacturing requires sharing and openness–unless Detroit starts to encourage their secondary suppliers to bring their own technologies to the task of improving performance, their cars will remain deeply compromised. Detroit management simply must get over their outdated need to control all aspects of production. That scene of the barn raising in their current spot brings to mind a very relevant Amish expression: “Many hands make light work.” Detroit can get further faster by changing from a vendor to a partner mentality, but they’ll have to do that quickly before they drive those smaller partners out of business.
America doesn’t want our car industry to fail. Sure many of us are angry and consider this crisis largely self-inflicted, but still, we want GM and Chrysler to be strong. Whether or not the government proves to be the answer, radical reinvention will have to be part of the solution. And that must start with the mindset first.
By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79
PS: I would like to thank all of the Element 79 contributors who kept collective-thinking fresh last week: Ryan, Lance, Kim, Todd, Amie and of course Brian, who was both incredibly generous and flattering in his comments and dead nuts right that I would have found a way to radically revise them had he shared his post in advance.