Fiat Chrysler's renaissance man makes brands sing

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — Olivier Francois is a renaissance man in a company of judicious executives.

The Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV global chief marketing officer and head of the automaker's Fiat brand is as comfortable walking a VIP carpet with John Varvatos and Michael Bolton as he is discussing marketing strategies with Hollywood executives or cars with enthusiasts.

"I'm not a marketing guy at all," said Francois, who burst into the spotlight in 2011 by convincing Detroit rapper Eminem to star in a two-minute Super Bowl ad for the Chrysler 200 — a spot that received international recognition. "I'm just a car salesman who tried to learn how to make cars ... and why to make a car. So I learned marketing."

The 53-year-old Frenchman is self-effacing, yet confident; stylish, in a European kind of way. People who have worked with him say those characteristics have helped Francois change the conversation about the automaker's North American-based operations (formerly Chrysler Group LLC), and cause a revolution within U.S. advertising with memorable ads and unique collaborations.

"I look at Olivier as very gifted, forward-thinking," Interscope Records Vice Chairman Steve Berman said in a recent phone interview. "We've connected for a long time now around music's impact on pop culture and our artists and our art, and how we can jointly penetrate into pop culture."

They've succeeded. Collaborations with Interscope since Francois, a former record label owner and managing director in the late '80s, have included Eminem, Dr. Dre, Imagine Dragons, Gwen Stefani and many others.

Joined 'on a gamble'

Francois joined Italian automaker Fiat SpA 10 years ago "on a gamble" with no automotive marketing experience. Today, he is responsible for marketing strategies, brand development and advertising for the company's brands. He is president and CEO of the Fiat brand, which is sold across the globe. He's also a member of the company's Group Executive Council, the highest executive decision-making body within Fiat Chrysler, outside of its board of directors.

He fell into marketing a decade ago as lead executive for the company's European Lancia brand. He found he had a knack for not just pushing products but building brands.

Francois' philosophy is centered on three pillars: "Brand over the product." "Be unique and unexpected." "Make an unforgettable connection."

All have been prevalent in Fiat Chrysler's ads for the last five years — from barely showing cars in Super Bowl ads, to convincing superstars to represent the company's products.

"With me, I say 'What is a list of things you need to do to be a leader in marketing?' " said the Fiat Chrysler executive. "Not me, but for a company to be a marketing leader?"

Answering those questions with his three pillars have helped Francois accelerate.

"Connection is one thing, but if it can leave a trace and stay a little bit in peoples' memory. It's awesome. It's incredible," says Francois, who has shots of the 2011 commercial and ads of the Chrysler 200 campaign in his office. "This is really bringing advertising and marketing to the next level. And you cannot do that every time."

While the 200 wasn't as successful as was hoped, the ad, which featured Detroit more than the car, changed the conversation about the brand being an "enigma" and introduced the tagline "Imported From Detroit."

Eminem was convinced to star in the ad and release the rights to the Academy Award-winning song "Lose Yourself" in December 2010, following a late-night "impromptu" meeting in a Ferndale recording studio between Francois and Joel Martin. Martin handles publishing rights for the soundtrack to "8 Mile" and shares writing credit on the song. Francois said Eminem's manager, Paul Rosenberg, was instrumental in getting Eminem's agreement.

The ad was the beginning of what is now five years of unique partnerships that Francois has led. Besides Interscope, other music partnerships have included Universal Music, Sony and Atlantic Records. Not to mention tie-ups with movie studios and celebrities like Clint Eastwood, Oprah Winfrey and Bob Dylan.

Famed music producer Alex da Kid says the chief marketing officer "understands music more than most" in his position. "Olivier is great because he's so entrenched in music and loves music," he said about a collaboration between X Ambassadors, a group on his label, and the 2015 Jeep Renegade. "He understands how powerful music can be if it's done in the right way with a visual and a brand."

Each brand's like a playlist

Francois is a list-maker who many times answers questions in stages and parts. It's helped him set priorities, find problems and create marketing solutions for each of the automaker's brands.

Each, in his mind, has its own "set of Ps" — persona; purpose; positioning; personality; place; and playlist. And just like a playlist on iTunes, each brand evolves with time to feature new songs, artists and favorites.

Under the leadership of Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, Francois has helped provide a unique place for each of the automaker's mainstream brands in the U.S.: Chrysler is American. Dodge is mainstream performance. Fiat is fun and fashionable. Jeep is adventurous. Ram is trucks.

Up next is the return of famed Italian brand Alfa Romeo to North America. After a 20-year hiatus, Alfa has returned and is in the midst of a $6.5 billion plan to make it into a global aspirational brand.

Francois won't yet discuss marketing and advertising plans for Alfa, but its 105th anniversary celebration next month in Italy could be a good starting point. He most recently was working on a new name for the Alfa Romeo Museum in Italy, which is reopening as part of the anniversary celebration.

"In every detail — not just an ad — you want to be unique and unexpected," Francois said referring to one of his pillars. "How do you say museum in Alfa Romeo's language?"

Besides Alfa, Francois is concentrating on the global launch of the Fiat 500X, a small crossover that the automaker hopes boosts domestic sales.

The vehicle is starting to arrive in U.S. dealerships, but the 114.4 million people who watched the Super Bowl should at least be familiar with it and its encounter with a little blue performance-enhancing pill as part of a 60-second ad.

The slightly racy spot took viewers on the journey of the pill that is accidently thrown out of a window by an older Italian man whose significant other was calling him to bed. The pill eventually lands in a tiny Fiat 500 city car that transforms into the 500X.

He said to expect the story of the "ready for action" crossover to continue starting in June.

Francois says he joined the automaker because of Marchionne, who has said he will stay with the automaker through at least 2018. Asked what he'll do when Marchionne leaves, Francois thinks for a second before listing off reasons why he's concentrating on the now, and not the later.

"We have this very sense of belonging to something," he says. "We also have an almost romantic sense of having a mission, and the mission is not accomplished yet."

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Olivier Francois

Positions: Fiat Chrysler chief marketing officer; president and CEO Fiat brand; Group Executive Council member

Achievements: Five years of unique Super Bowl ads; 2012 "Grand Brand Genius" by Adweek magazine; FCA US named 2012 "Marketer of the Year" by Advertising Age

Time spent: 45 percent in Europe (homes in Turin and Milan, Italy); 45 percent North America (home in Bloomfield Hills); and 10 percent rest of world

Languages spoken: English, French, Italian

Family: Wife, Arianna Martina Bergamaschi (singer); sons, Nicolas, Arnaud and Guillaume

Born: In Paris; age 53

Degrees: Economy, finance and marketing from Dauphine University (1985); diploma from Institut des Sciences Politiques in Paris (1989)