Before I draw the curtain on my idyllic days in Detroit, I wanted to set the record straight. There were some catastrophes that occurred that weren’t my fault. I’m not trying to deflect blame, but rather point out the fact that I was nowhere near the scene of the crime. Multi-billion dollar corporations always make mistakes, but because of their size, the mistakes tend to be huge. They continue, however, to make billions of dollars. Here are a few examples of “too big to fail.”
Asleep At The Switch
GM had a division called GM Photographic. GM ad agencies were instructed to give all of their photostat work to this group. Additionally, they were automatically given the printing jobs for all Chevrolet car brochures, much to the dismay of local Detroit-area printers. And so it was when Campbell-Ewald and Chevy decided to do a pre-printed full-line insert to appear in Reader’s Digest. The “Digest” had a huge circulation, larger than many major national magazines combined. And, even though the page size was very small, the magazine was able to sell itself as an efficient way to reach millions of readers. With this in mind, the agency created a 12-page insert to be bound into an upcoming issue of the magazine. Because of the size of the run, 9 million copies, GM Photographic was automatically award the printing job. They were to print, collate, and bind 9 million inserts and ship them in time to appear in the next available issue of Reader’s Digest. The printing plates were produced and delivered to the GM Photographic presses. Soon, 9 million Americans would see”What’s New Today In A Chevrolet.”
The press proof check went well. The insert looked wonderful. The order was given to throw the switch. The green “On” button was pressed, and the gigantic web litho machines came to life. On to the next project. Several days later, it takes a long time to print 9 million of anything, the agency received a call from the shipper scheduled to send dozens of shipping pallets to Reader’s Digest. “Uh,” the shipper said, “you might want to come and take a look at your insert.” The agency’s head of print production sped over. What he saw made his blood run cold. The shipper handed him a finished insert. The color was out of register. During four-color printing, the different color plates have to line up perfectly. If not, the text and photos look like something from a 3-D comic book. Our production manager called the Account Man (not me) and the client. When they arrived, they opened the rest of the bundle on the pallet. All of them were out of register! The GM Photographic rep was called over. He tried to explain that this was very definitely an isolated thing and challenged the Chevy client to randomly pick any bundle on the dozens of pallets to see that they had been printed correctly. The client did. He picked hundreds of bundles, several from each pallet. They were all wrong! I wasn’t there, but I’m pretty sure there was a lot of screaming and shouting, as well as some sobbing. On a press run this large, someone is supposed to monitor the printing every so often to make sure that something like this doesn’t happen. Nobody did. In fact, we later found out that the man running the press had…wait for it…wait for it…fallen asleep at the switch. GM Photographic was forced to reprint all 9 million at their expense. I think the executions took place in the basement of the GM Building.
Those Pesky Typos
When you have a huge ad budget, you can buy lots of media, requiring lots of advertising. In 1976, Chevy’s ad budget was in excess of $100 million, the largest single ad account in the country. I came up with, what I thought, was a brilliant idea. The U.S. population that year was 218 million. Approximately 20 million were, what could we could call, new car purchase intenders. Why not take the $100 million ad budget and give it to a research company to visit each of these people for ten minutes and tell them how great Chevy was? If only one in ten did, that meant that 2 million people would buy a Chevy. I took the idea to Doug Allison, the head of Campbell-Ewald’s Research Department. He was so disheartened by the idiocy of my idea that he and Herb Fisher, the head of our Multi-Products Group, left the agency and started a little research company called Allison-Fisher. Oh well, maybe it wasn’t a good time to stop advertising, what with everyone wrapping themselves in American glory for the Bi-Centennial. Chevy was no exception. For ’76, Chevy had a theme “The Spirit of America.” They came out with special Spirit of America models; white cars with red and blue pinstripes. We used our huge ad budget to wrap ourselves in red, white, and blue. With that much media, a lot of ads had to be prepared. Sometimes they were put together too quickly. If you are going to represent the Spirit of America, it would behoove one to check for typos. A lot of people may see your mistake.
Clients. naturally, like to have their ad agency close to them. They can summon a quivering Account Man at a moment’s notice, and they don’t have to travel very far to visit the agency. Thus it was for Chevrolet and Campbell-Ewald. Chevy was on the 2nd floor of the GM Building, Campbell-Ewald on the 4th. The agency was never more than five minutes away. In the early 1970’s, the agency was informed that Chevrolet was moving to the GM Tech Center in Warren, Michigan. The agency was informed that they would be expected to relocate also. At that time, the largest office facilities in the area were a large Little Caesar’s, a Towne Club pop retail store (soda for non-Midwesterners), and Bob Thibodeau Ford. The decision was made to buy property on Van Dyke in Warren, across from the GM Tech Center. Plans were drawn up. Ground was broken. 30400 Van Dyke was going to be our new home. Until Chevy changed General Managers. Tom Adams visited the new Chevy GM, Jim McDonald, to update him on our building’s progress. “Why are you putting up a building in Warren?” Jim asked. Tom said, “So we can be across the street from you when you move out there.” Jim said, “We’re not leaving Detroit, and neither are you.” Tom excused himself. We scrambled to find tenants. Fortunately, the area was growing, so we were able to lease a lot of the space. Campbell-Ewald carried this real estate albatross around it’s neck until there was a regime change at Chevy. Campbell-Ewald was told that Chevy was moving out to the GM Tech Center, and that the agency as expected to follow them. Campbell-Ewald said, “No problem! We might have a building we can use.” Of course, once GM announced that they were moving their corporate offices downtown to the RenCen on the Detroit River waterfront, Campbell-Ewald knew that they were going to have to pull up stakes and “follow the money.” They took space in a warehouse complex that was once part of the massive J. L. Hudson store, next to, ironically, Ford Field. I’m glad they’ve come home.
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