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'Here's to the Crazy Ones': Fiat's Olivier Francois

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An infamous Apple "Think Different" ad once proclaimed: "Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently."

Among auto executives in Detroit these days, the one who fits the Apple idea the most is Olivier Francois, CEO of Fiat Auto and the marketing chief of Chrysler. Detroiters should know him best as the father of the "Imported From Detroit" ad campaign that began last February during the Super Bowl, and continued this week with a new TV spot featuring the poetry of Michigander Edgar A. Guest.

In more than two decades covering the auto industry, and specifically automotive advertising, I have seen dozens of chief marketing officers come and go. Most have ranged from ineffectual to merely adequate. A few, such as Volkswagen's Steve Wilhite in the late '90s and Tim Mahoney at Subaru, have been exceptional.

And then there is Francois. Like the other European executives running Chrysler these days, he is naughty by American standards. At the recent Los Angeles Auto Show, we conducted our business in a haze of cigarette smoke. Seriously. It's a European thing, and I didn't mind.

Francois is often on a plane, shuttling back and forth between Italy and Auburn Hills, and the image of constantly being aloft suits the French-born 50-year-old. He seems always to be thinking at 30,000 feet.

Take his recent ideas to fix the botched U.S. launch of Fiat after he took the company's reigns in August. Cars were being built before an adequate number of dealerships were open, and advertising could't be justified until August because of the lack of open stores. The company had projected 50,000 Fiat 500s sold by the end of this year. Sales will likely be fewer than 25,000. Some of the stores I have seen look pretty sad. Not surprisingly, the executive in charge of it all left the company last week.

After other executives had made a total hash of getting Fiat off the ground, Francois green-lighted an extensive marketing tie-in with Jennifer Lopez to help drive awareness of the Fiat 500 and the launch of the brand.

Francois thinks big and bold, and that's why he struck the J.Lo deal. The singer first had the 500 in her "Papi" video; then an ad was edited down from that video. Next came an ad with J.Lo shot in the Bronx (or maybe not); then J.Lo in a 500 on stage at the American Music Awards. The campaign is driving millions of YouTube views and much better awareness and consideration of the 500 and of Fiat, according to numbers compiled by shopping sites like Edmunds.com and AOL Autos.

But when you are flying at 30,000 feet, details can be missed. We learned this week, for example, that J.Lo's body-double was the one in a Fiat in the Bronx, even as her voiceover talked about "going home." And the 500 on the AMA stage was locked when J.Lo tried to open its door. The performance came across as a really ham-fisted product placement -- even John Legend tweeted that it was "shameless." As Texas Gov. Rick Perry would say, "Oops." Bad stuff.

But Francois is not deterred. He insists J.Lo loves the 500 and that makes her flogging of the car all good.

To understand how crazy Francois is, you have to consider that nobody has ever done a two-minute ad on the Super Bowl, let alone an ad that tried to make Detroit look cool. February's Chrysler ad defied every convention of ad buying, and it smoked ads from every other carmaker in the Super Bowl for YouTube views and Internet chatter. But even so, my friends in the industry from California chortled and sniffed in that superior way that they do when they come to Detroit in January for the North American International Auto Show. "It's nonsense," they said. "No one in L.A. will ever car about this kind of advertising -- or Chryslers."

As if that was the point. Before they ran the Super Bowl ad, Chrysler cancelled its contracts with the firms that measure the company's advertising effectiveness.

In an era when we can point to the catastrophic influence of the Harvard Business School (disincentives to take risks based on knowledge and talent) on the implosion of the U.S. auto industry in 2008 and 2009, I love the fact that Francois and Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne are going mostly on gut when it comes to advertising.

Before he arrived in Detroit in 2009, Francois was in charge of Fiat's Lancia brand. While there, he ran an ad during the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates spotlighting the imprisonment of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Why did he do that? Because the issue mattered to him.

Francois sometimes spends almost nothing to shoot these ads, sending a videographer with a hand-held camera to do the work. He also scores some of the music for ads himself. Indeed, he worked directly with Eminem's music crew last winter, influencing some of the key music elements in the Chrysler Super Bowl ad, such as the choir scene at the Fox Theatre. He is a unique character on the auto scene.

Fiat's sales are clearly disappointing. It's up to Francois to set them right. Sales are the metrics to pay attention to at Chrysler. But it takes looking carefully to interpret the numbers properly. Total Chrysler Group sales in the U.S. were up 27 percent this year through October. Jeep is the big winner, up 44 percent. Ram is up 24 percent. Dodge is up 15 percent. Chrysler is only up 2 percent. Chrysler is also profitable and has already bought out the U.S. government stake that was necessary to see the company through 2009.

Does that mean the "Imported from Detroit" campaign is not working? I'd say no. There are two "redesigned" Chryslers this year, the 300 and 200, and an upgraded Town & Country. (While the 300 is really new top to bottom, the 200 and T&C are really just substantial upgrades, not total redesigns.) Given that, a 2 percent gain year over year is pretty respectable.

Chief marketing officers love to do two things: change ad agencies and change ad strategies. If they are in flux all the time, it looks more like they're doing something. If Francois were subscribing to high-priced metrics about the "Imported from Detroit" ads, I suspect he might feel pressure to ponder a change. Numbers compiled from those California firms would probably dictate change to an executive who was a slave to metrics. When I suggested that, Francois smiled through the smoke and grinned a confident grin. "What we need to do is make it bigger," he said.

Take that, California! Here's to the crazy ones, the rebels, and the executives who never went to Harvard Business School.

Grand Blvd. is a weekly column about the intersection of the auto industry, culture and politics from David Kiley. For more of his writing, and everything about cars, head over to AOL Autos.