WRITE HARD, DIE FREE: AN UPDATE.

Editor’s Note: When we embarked on this ride called Autoextremist, with whereabouts unknown way back when, little did we know we’d be here almost twenty-three years later. And we certainly could never have predicted the current state of our country and our world. With the “swirling maelstrom” – as Peter calls it – in full gale force, we think it’s a perfect time to remind everyone what this site, and The Autoextremist, are all about. To do that, we need to travel back in time, to the beliefs that formed the foundation of this site, and that continue to drive us to this day. The world is a dramatically different place than it was that June day in 1999, but in so many ways, when it comes to this business, there’s a mind-numbing sameness about it all that is truly unbelievable. -WG 

 

By Peter M. DeLorenzo 

Detroit. Going on twenty-three years ago (gulp), when I became tired of what the ad biz had become, tired of the sycophants, the ass-kissers, the spineless weasels and the other two-bit players who had turned what was once a pretty interesting profession into a vapid wasteland, I knew it was time to do something different. 

The auto business – as practiced back then in Detroit – was sinking further into the abyss of risk-avoidance-driven mediocrity, and I watched legions of so-called “executives” make horrendous, piss-poor decisions day after day on behalf of their respective auto companies. This sick dance of mediocrity was a recurring nightmare with no end in sight.

As I watched the carnage unfold around me, I felt that something had to be said by someone with firsthand knowledge, someone who was in the trenches and on the front lines of the ongoing battle. And, of course, that someone turned out to be me. And, Autoextremist.com became my forum to say it.

As longtime readers know, Autoextremist was originally a concept I had for a new car magazine back in 1986. The print version of Autoextremist was going to target hard-core enthusiasts, while telling it like it is with a distinctive and combative journalistic style. It would also be the first enthusiast car publication that wouldn’t accept advertising. Back then, the state of the enthusiast car mags was a dismal parade of sameness that left me cold, and I was determined to breathe new life into the genre. But my ad career perpetually got in the way, and by the time I looked up it was the late spring of 1999. I knew that if I didn’t do it then, I’d never do it, so the urgency to create Autoextremist was placed on the front burner. The Internet, of course, would replace the print magazine idea, but the essence of my original manifesto written back in 1986 remained unchanged.

And that’s how this publication and “The High-Octane Truth” came about. A lot has changed about this business over the ensuing years, but then again, as I am continually reminded, a lot hasn’t. I am certain of one thing, however, and that is my set of fundamental beliefs about this business hasn’t changed much at all. I thought it would be a good time to reiterate what those beliefs are as we lurch into February – where I’m coming from, how I look at things and why I say the things I do.

still believe that the business of designing, building, engineering, marketing and advertising cars and trucks should begin with one simple premise – that the Product is King – and everything else must flow from that. Cars and trucks should be exciting to look at, fun to drive, flat-out desirable and worth owning in all respects. If a company and/or its executives forget that fact, they will fail.

I believe that people with marketing degrees or blue-chip MBAs are not automatically qualified to make decisions when it comes to the serious business of marketing and advertising cars. Though the situation is far better than it once was, being able to tell an ad agency what’s good or not good about an ad campaign that has just been worked on for 30 days straight takes consummate skill, quality experience and genuine perspective. And that perspective doesn’t come easy, or with an inflated degree. There are marketers who are eminently qualified to do what they do, but there’s not enough mentoring going on in this critical field and it remains a notable problem.  

I believe that car company executives whose first order of business is to cover their own asses and then shamelessly promote themselves the rest of the time – while bringing absolutely nothing positive to the job at hand – should be encouraged to take that long “break” they keep droning on about in off-the-record moments. Please do us all a favor – and leave now. This assessment certainly isn’t confined to the automobile business by any stretch, because it also plagues corporate America at every turn. COVID-19 has hastened the departure of many of these marginal executives, and working remotely has lessened the exposure for a lot of them, but they’re still out there and they’re still costing these companies dearly.

I believe that a rampant, “let’s not offend anyone” mentality still affects every decision made by almost every car executive (yes, there are a few brilliant exceptions) working in the business today. And the sniveling backpedaling hasn’t abated one iota over the last couple of decades, I am sorry to say. If there’s even a hint of reactionary venom directed toward a campaign or an initiative, the time-honored response for a company is to tuck its tail between its legs, do a public mea culpa and then crawl back into the PC woodwork. Really? All that time, effort, research and money expended was for naught because someone tweeted something that was negative? Executives arrived at a reasoned decision that made sense for the company and yet with one discouraging word those well-reasoned convictions go right out the window? This kind of spineless behavior is tedious and flat-out wrong. 

Typically, politics permeates every decision in the car business down to the very last detail, ensuring that all butts are covered and that no one is left “exposed” to any ugly consequences. The business is still populated by people more worried about what their political standing within the company “entitles” them to than about bringing to the table an attitude of “what can I do?” or “how can we make it better?” And accountability is still in short supply. Are there auto execs out there more willing to take a stand these days? Yes, but not nearly enough. And I’m sure a search party will have to be organized to find executives with backbones to shore up the ranks.

I believe that the advertising agency side of the business is too often forced to stray from being a creative environment. The common refrain from clients is that an entrenched ad agency that handles the mundane day-to-day advertising needs for a client has become too predictable and staid, when in fact the client is directly responsible for grinding said agency down to a nub as it is jerked around every which way catering to the clients’ whims – which are affected by the prevailing winds – and which change course on a daily basis. That this isn’t conducive to unleashing creativity is the biggest continuing “duh” in the business, reducing the daily ad agency drill down to a series of reactionary pushbacks both debilitating and disheartening.

The result? Advertising agencies have forgotten what their mission is, because they’re spending 90% of their time, money, resources and effort on everything else under the sun except actually trying to make great advertising. And too often their clients are directly responsible for this revolting development – and they ultimately get the advertising they deserve because of it. Yes, there are exceptions to this, when brilliant advertising somehow emerges from the Fog of War, but for the most part it is depressingly accurate.

I believe the state of automotive journalism has never been as weak as it is right now. There are too few writers’ worth going out of your way for today, and that’s a shame. Automotive journalism (yes, of course there are notable exceptions) has devolved into a thinly disguised pay-to-play-for-access game. And it’s embarrassing.

As for the car biz itself, is it still about the Product? Absolutely. More so today than ever before. And the coming EV Age has not changed that one bit, either. In fact, it has made the product even more critical. But without the kind of accurate, enticing and properly funded marketing firepower to put behind a new product, then it doesn’t matter how good it is, because it will get lost in the shuffle 120 days after its launch in this heavily oversaturated market we live in.

still believe that a joyful celebration of the indefatigable nature of the American Spirit is worthwhile, as well as a celebration of the essential role the automobile has had, continues to have, and will always play. But there is definitely a great unknown about this EV transformation, and the promises of untold profits at hand in a new Emerald Auto City just over the hill is still a giant “we’ll see.”

Twenty-three years on, I am proud to say that we still take you “behind the curtain” to give you an up-close look at the Wizards, the Dullards and everyone else in between in this business. I still say what the others are only thinking (or whispering) in deep background or “off-the-record” conversations, and I will continue to do so. 

Delivering the Truth, The Whole Truth… and absolutely nothing but The High-Octane Truth has been an exhilarating ride.

Write Hard, Die Free indeed.

And that’s the High-Octane/Electron Truth for this week.

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