In the first six weeks after Chrysler launched its “Imported From Detroit” commercial on the Super Bowl, the Wieden + Kennedy spot generated nearly 10 million views on YouTube alone. Never mind that it was made by a Portland, Ore., agency for a company run by Italian Fiat executives who have been moving Chrysler’s manufacturing base to Mexico. The original two-minute commercial struck a patriotic chord, offering a defiant response to the city’s—and its eponymous industry’s—demonized image in popular media.
Last month, new Census data provided even more ammunition to the death of Detroit story. It showed that the city lost 25 percent of its population over the last decade, reducing it to the size it was in 1910, just after Henry Ford began selling his first Model T. Detroit inhabitants continue to flee a city of ravaged infrastructure and public services, bankrupt schools, abandoned buildings, and an industry that can no longer support them.
A city once emblematic of America’s industrial might will never return to its golden era of manufacturing. The formerly liberal electorate is turning to political outsiders–businessmen like Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and Republican Michigan Governor Rick Snyder—to turn a place built on union muscle into something more modern: businesses aligned with intellectual capital and services, technology, and entrepreneurial endeavors. But there’s still a small circle of nostalgists and optimists who believe in Detroit and in automobiles: the American adman.
There may not be a more co-dependent relationship in the marketing business. Advertising not only created the vast demand for new cars, but it also celebrated car culture. Having a car account was the sine qua non of agency status. You couldn’t be in the advertising big leagues without a major auto brand.
Arguably, as goes Detroit, so has gone the ad agency business–its former bravado and profitability laid low by Detroit’s long decline. A fair corollary might also be: If the executives of Detroit screwed up the business, their faithful admen retainers didn’t do the business any favors either.
But now it is not only a new set of auto execs trying to reinvent a new, albeit much smaller, American auto industry, but a new set of admen trying to reclaim, however wistfully, the Big Car Account, prompting the obvious question: Can you go home again?
Toby Barlow, the chief creative officer at Team Detroit, WPP’s joint venture of agencies dedicated to Ford, came to Detroit nearly five years ago after working in New York and San Francisco. He’s one of Detroit’s most vocal supporters–the industry and the city. He lives downtown in a Mies van der Rohe townhouse he bought for $100,000 and is part of a group of young entrepreneurs and artists moving into the city. He rides his bike on Detroit’s quiet, wide boulevards, the first to be built in America. He passes by urban ruins like the empty Michigan Central Depot–once the tallest rail station in the world–which remains majestic in its decay. There are blocks of once-neat rows of houses, structures that now stand burned or abandoned.
“As you ride, you get the feeling that this city was built for something great, that this was truly the American dream. Actually, this wasn’t a dream; it was the actuality of it. You could be an immigrant and get into the UAW and have a nice home and a place up north,” Barlow muses. “This city is a tragedy of success. The people who won left, and the people who were left behind are always the ones left behind. The decline in the perception of the automotive business and the decline of Detroit are inextricably connected.”
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