Claire Beale on Advertising: Let's be honest, all of us need GM to be reborn

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The Independent Online

"Let's be completely honest. No company wants to go through this." The voice is smoothly soothing. "This" is Chapter 11. But don't panic. This is General Motors's phoenix ad.

The ad has just been released and is designed to consign all that messy bankruptcy business firmly to history. Look at all these lovely pictures of the sun rising above a corporate American skyline, of seeds growing into little plants, of disabled athletes winning races, of American football, man landing on the moon, the stars and stripes.

"We're not witnessing the end of the American car. We're witnessing the rebirth of the American car." Rousing stuff. "This is not about going out of business." (Thank you, President Obama). "This is about getting down to business." Phew. For a moment there all that debt looked rather scary, particularly for the bloodied ad agencies left holding IOUs of $166.5m. Because GM has pulled the ad industry to the edge with it.

Documents filed in the US last week record that the media agency Starcom MediaVest is General Motors's sixth largest creditor. Sixth. GM owes the agency £121m, and this when adland is strapped for cash, freezing salaries and making redundancies even without clients defaulting.

And Starcom's parent, Publicis, which also owns the creative agency Leo Burnett – one of GM's creative partners, is owed $25m by the car giant. Meanwhile, over at rival Interpublic (a company that has itself spent the last few years struggling to find financial stability) the GM debt mountain totals almost $16m. At least IPG is used to financial crisis.

All this comes just weeks after Chrysler went down owing ad agency BBDO $58m, making BBDO its second largest unsecured creditor. Detroit is dying. So adland is bleeding.

GM, meanwhile, has moved on. Its rebirth ad, by LA agency Deutsch, confidently proclaims "the only chapter we're focused on is Chapter One". Kick-starting the GM brand will be one heck of an advertising and marketing challenge though. And the peculiarly American mix of contrition and chutzpah demonstrated by its reinvention ad campaign is a tacit acknowledgement of the battle ahead.

You can see the ad at GMreinvention.com. It's curiously honest about where it went wrong. It's almost as though this is an ad for GM's advertising creditors as much as for customers; a confession that what brought the firm to its knees was mismanagement and mis-marketing.

It wasn't always so. GM began with sound marketing principles enshrined into its DNA. Back in the 1920s, when it began to formalise a marketing approach, it focused firmly on segmentation of the market, with each brand marque differentiated from another.

In recent years this brand and marketing structure became horribly muddled, with too many brands, too many uncompetitive costs, too much corporate swagger without careful corporate governance. GM began to believe its own hype. It began to believe that it was America.

So "there was a time when eight different brands made sense," says the reinvention ad (brands including Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick, Saab, Hummer). "Not any more." And "there was a time when our cost structure could compete worldwide. Not any more."

Having accepted it needs structural and branding reinvention, GM needs the ad industry more than ever, not only to advise on a new marketing approach, but to help persuade consumers that GM is still a potent symbol of the American dream. And despite – and, of course, because of – the massive debts it owes the advertising industry, adland needs a strong GM to emerge from the cinders of bankruptcy.

The ad agencies holding the IOUs need it, the media owners who've sold GM spots and space that have not yet been paid for need it, and the global economy needs it.

Best in Show: Robinsons (BBH)

Ah, June. Time of blind optimism. Sweaters are packed away for the season and we think a Brit might win Wimbledon. Time too, then, for a tennis ad from Robinsons. This year Bartle Bogle Hegarty has knocked up a treat. Its campaign is a lovingly shot, beautifully paced ad that captures that bitter-sweet hope and expectation of a British Wimbledon triumph. We see spectators watching the Wimbledon final. Lips are chewed, fingers twisted, breath held. But wait, where's the achingly familiar disappointment that always follows? In Robinsons' world, we win.

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