DateFRIDAY, MAY 24, 2019 AT 05:49PM
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. Twenty years ago, when I became tired of what the ad biz had become, tired of the ass kissers and the other two-bit players who had turned what was once a pretty interesting profession into a vapid wasteland, I knew I had to do something different. I had also grown tired of seeing the auto business – as practiced here in Detroit – sink further into the Abyss of risk-avoidance-driven mediocrity, and watching legions of so-called "executives" make horrendous, piss-poor decisions day after day on behalf of their respective auto companies.
As I watched the carnage unfold around me, I knew that something had to be said by someone who had firsthand knowledge of what was going on – someone who was in the trenches and on the front lines of the ongoing battle.
That someone turned out to be me. And Autoextremist.com became my forum to say it.
As some of you may recall, Autoextremist originally was 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, combative style. It would also be the first enthusiast car publication that wouldn’t accept advertising.
The state of the enthusiast car mags back then was a dismal parade of sameness that left me cold, and I was determined to breathe some life into the genre (and it is different today, how? –WG). But my ad career got in the way, and by the time I looked up it was the late spring of 1999, and I knew that if I didn’t do it then, I’d never do it – so the time was finally right for Autoextremist. 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, whether people were ready for it or not. A lot has changed about this business over the ensuing years, but as I am continually reminded, a lot hasn’t.
Over the course of the past 20 years, it has been The Best of Times, and it has been The Worst of Times. And it has been a journalistic rocket ride like no other. When we started this publication back on June 1, 1999, there was no real plan other than that I was ready to recount a lifetime of automotive history that began in Detroit’s heyday, combine that with my life’s work in the auto advertising and marketing trenches, and blow the lid off of the status quo in a business that had become petrified and jaded. I was going to tell the real stories and name the real names, and I wasn’t going to hide behind the usual journalistic chestnuts of “deep background” and “off-the-record” sobriquets. I was going to make people accountable in a business in which not being accountable had become a cottage industry.
Back when we started AE the car business as writ large here – this once-glorious, exuberant business that created The Arsenal of Democracy and made up the fabric of American industrial might – had become overrun with bloodsucking parasites and spineless weasels.
This industry that once boasted industrial giants who roamed the earth creating fabulous machines while leaving heroic legacies in their wake had been reduced to a mewling chorus of sycophants making excuses for what couldn’t be done and why “they” – aka Detroit – couldn’t compete, while churning out mind-numbing, rolling monuments to mediocrity that drove millions of consumers away, for good.
Watching Detroit’s collective market share do a pirouette into The Darkness was not so much sobering as it was frightening, and my writings took the fight to these purveyors of boneheaded excuses and feckless mediocrity and changed the conversation forever.
I challenged every single convention and blew the lid off of the excuse-making machines that the car company PR functions had become, and turned this business on its ear, which was, in reality, much harder to do than it sounds now.
But think about the relationship between the press and the auto companies back then. There was no news or opinion of any substance, just rote regurgitation of the auto company press releases with an occasional “tough” question thrown in for good measure. And if it was too “tough” an editor would get “the call” and be taken to the proverbial woodshed by the Chief PR minion because, well, you know, it just wasn’t done. And for their penance the offending scribes would be denied access to a top executive – especially the CEO – which at the time was akin to the death penalty. Without access they wouldn’t be able to distinguish themselves in the swirling maelstrom of predictability that the industry press corps had become. Without access, they were pretty much dead.
But the key differentiator for me was that I didn’t care about access, because I not only knew the Detroit auto executive mindset intimately, inside and out, I had it down cold. I knew what they thought and why they were thinking it. So much so in fact, that on more than one occasion – okay, make that more times than I can even count – I heard comments from top executives that went something like this: “I don’t know who you’re talking to, or where you’re getting your information, but it’s so uncannily accurate that it is scary.”
In fact, it was so disconcerting to the car company PR minions that it struck fear into their very hearts and kept them awake at night. And as they watched their digital clocks tick over with a sickening thud in the middle of the night, the prayers that could be heard in the darkness sounded achingly similar: “I hope he stops. Or starts writing about somebody else. Or gets hit by a truck, whichever comes first, Dear Lord.” But those prayers fell on deaf ears.
I am gratified to say that Autoextremist.com changed the tone and tenor of the media coverage of this business once and for all. Countless imitators and wannabes sprang up and are still springing up to this day. I have had writers attempt to copy my style while brazenly calling it their own, and I’ve even had Internet trolls blatantly steal my copy and post it on their websites thinking no one would notice.
But it didn’t really matter in the end, because the voice – and the impact – of Autoextremist.com rang loud and true and has been powerful for, as hard as it is to believe – 20 years – and the imitators and freeloaders slunk away from under the rocks from whence they came.
I walked away from car advertising because the relationship between the car companies and their ad agencies had become so polluted that it was too embarrassing for words, a sickening dance of egregious malfeasance that was an insult to the craft – on both sides of the ball. What had once been a pretty damn great way to make a living – one filled with bristling creativity and collaborative excellence – had deteriorated into a cesspool of go-along-to-get-along cowardice and “thank you, sir, may I have another?” bull****. The profoundly inept were leading the spineless order takers, and the resulting chaos masquerading as marketing was devastating.
Is it better now? Well, let’s see, two of the three American car companies went bankrupt ten years ago, with one of those being gifted to a foreign car company because no one else had a better idea about to how to save it. But, let’s get back to the question – is it really better now?
Yes and no. The products are better, make no mistake about that. In fact, we are experiencing the finest machines in automotive history at this very moment in time. And that is no insignificant thing.
But the romance and art that once fueled this business, and the passion and willingness to do great things and strive for excellence that took it to lofty heights, are now confined to the thriving pockets of True Believers spread out among the car companies. These are the people who keep the passion of this business alive and who stay true to their beliefs against overwhelming odds. Because in reality this “new” auto business has been defined by the deal makers and the interloping carpetbaggers hell bent on maximizing their balance sheets while embracing commoditization and globalization. The art of the machine means less than zero to them and has become irrelevant, and the art of this business is dying with it. And it’s sad.
As I’ve said repeatedly, this business isn’t for the faint of heart. And though it seems that there are legions of recalcitrant twerps and two-bit hacks running around out there who add nothing of import to the discussion and who pump up their self-worth for reasons that remain a mystery, the real essence of the business remains unsullied.
When we first contemplated doing Autoextremist, I wrote a manifesto for what it was and what it was not. And I am proud to say it still resonates today.
I began with the premise that designing, engineering and building automobiles is one of the most complicated endeavors on earth. And to do it properly takes vision, creativity and an unwavering passion that makes other pursuits seem positively ordinary. Note that there is nothing in there about doing it just good enough to get by, engineering to the lowest common denominator, covering your ass or any of the other pillars of “standard operating procedure” that once dominated certain quarters of this business and have been, for the most part, purged.