The Automotive Arms Race
October 9, 2012 Leave a comment
Two weeks ago, after attending an all day “immersion session” about a new vehicle my clients in Detroit are launching I was getting into my car in the satellite parking lot when a car pulled up next to me.
“Hey” said the driver, “You guys just coming from [CLIENT NAME REDACTED]? You work there? Agency guys?”
He was driving a vehicle made by my client, was in a parking lot that I believe is affiliated with my client, but this seemed a little off.
“Yeah, agency,” I replied, feeling uneasy. Who was this guy? “We were at a workshop.”
“So what’d they have up there? New vehicles?”
This is when I started getting nervous. I gave my co-worker the “get the F^&K in the car, now,” look and curtly replied “Just learning about some vehicles.” and got in the car as he drove off.
I have no idea who he was. My memory is fuzzy, but he may have looked like this:
Who was he? A spy from a rival company? A journalist? An employee of my client just curious about what all the hubbub was about?
One of the things I love about working in the automotive industry is the Cold War, Arms Race way they go about their business. They talk about things like “marketshare” instead of “bomber gaps” but it’s pretty much the same thing.
One side comes out with something new. A new engine, a new transmission, some radically new vehicle. They desperately try to keep it a secret. They lock out the press until just the right time. They put stickers over the cameras on our phones when we go to learn about them (although they routinely overlook the front-facing cameras on my smartphones). And yet, they also have official channels for sharing information. They have competitive intelligence groups that work with their counterparts at the competition to understand what’s new and coming up. It’s the equivalent of an American embassy in Moscow during the 80’s.
Each side privately uses language about “beating up the guys down in [town where competitor’s HQ is]” or “taking their lunch money.” But publicly it’s smiles and friendly ribbing at auto shows and in the trades.
They wrap vehicles in black plastic to hide new features:
See what I mean?
My favorite part of the business of advertising cars and trucks is the way people move around. If your agency has an auto client, they probably have an office in Detroit. And that Detroit office is staffed by people from Michigan who have made their careers out of advertising cars. They move from agency to agency following their clients. If you’re the account lead on Ford at Team Detroit, and Ford moves over to Goodby, guess who’s moving down the road to Goodby with them.
Most of the agencies’ offices are within walking distance of each other, they all know each other, they’ve alternately worked with and competed with the other players. It’s like something out of a John Le Carre novel.
And I love it.