When Ralph Watson, the Executive Creative Director at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, told his wife in 2011 that he’d been asked to move from New York to Detroit to head up the advertising company’s new office to rebrand Chevrolet, her reaction was immediate and to the point. "There’s no fucking way," he recalls her telling him.
Who could blame her? For more than three decades, Detroit has been portrayed in the press as a city in decline, beset by unemployment, crime, civic corruption, and wholesale abandonment by anyone and everyone who could afford to get out. Hundreds of buildings stood vacant, whole tracts of the city reclaimed by nature with urban explorers and photographers parachuting in from all over the world to capture it in all its decaying glory. To many, the city that had birthed the auto industry, armed the Allies during WWII, and given the world some of the best music of the 20th century, was nothing more than a failed state, America’s answer to the Roman Ruins.
And yet, on a cold Thursday morning in the beginning of 2013, Watson, who somehow convinced his wife to move with him to the Motor City, is sitting in his corner office across from Todd Grantham, GSP’s Managing Director, at the company’s newish office in the Palms Building, an historic spot downtown, a home run hit from Comerica Park. The office, which opened in 2011, occupies five floors and has 275 employees focused on Chevrolet. Together they’re working to rebrand the carmaker as it expands globally with the new slogan, "Find New Roads."
On Watson’s window, which faces onto Woodward Avenue ("the first paved road in the U.S.," he noted) is a stenciled message that’s been used in a series of Corvette print ads being developed: "THIS IS AMERICA."
So, how does he like Detroit? "It’s Startupville," Watson says. "It’s anything goes, which I really like. It’s almost no rules."
"There’s massive opportunity here," adds Grantham, who relocated from San Francisco around the same time as Watson. "It feels like there are more interesting things here. People feel like there’s more wide open space than anywhere else"
GSP is among a small but dedicated cohort of creatives, entrepreneurs, and techies who are trying to stake a claim in Detroit and, they hope, help the city as they do so. Just down the street from the Palms Building is The M@dison Building, home of Skidmore Studio, a design and branding firm that started with auto illustrations in the late 1950s and has grown to a full service creative agency. The company moved back to Detroit three years ago after several decades in the suburbs, since, as Tim Smith, Skidmore’s President and CEO, puts it, "If the city is gonna come back, the creative community is gonna be part of that." Smith remembers a time when he’d fly out to meetings with clients in other cities and they’d say, "Oh, you’re from Detroit. We feel so bad for you." Now, he says, "We get off the plane and go 'We’re from Detroit,' and they say, 'That’s kinda cool.'"
"Damn right, it’s cool!," he tells us. "I think the bravado is coming back."
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