'Ford's next top executive': Stay tuned

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The Detroit Lions have Ford Field. Neighboring Dearborn, it appears, will soon have Fields' Ford.

By promoting Mark Fields to COO, Ford Motor Co. would send a clear signal that he is in line to be CEO after Alan Mulally -- try to stay calm here -- retires.

Hmm, because everything seems to be about marketing these days, I smell opportunity for the folks in the Glass House.

Ford dealers interviewed this week by Automotive News were glad to see the Blue Oval putting an orderly succession plan in place. After gushing about Mulally being a "gift from God," they praised Fields -- though mostly for having the good fortune to study under His Holiness Alan I.

A dealer from Texas, which is the state you call when you want a dealer to say something memorable, called Fields "a ninja warrior who will accomplish great things."

But before just handing the job over to Ninja Fields, Ford may want to keep in mind the bat that marketing chief Jim Farley can wield.

Simply making Fields the CEO in 2014, without any kind of a reality TV-show competition and social-media campaign, would pass up a chance to put Ford in the spotlight and finally grab the attention of those elusive millennials, at least until the iPhone 6 is announced.

Ford already has plenty of experience in this area. The company has long been a prominent sponsor of "American Idol," and it recently hired that show's host, Ryan Seacrest, to promote the upcoming Fusion. It even created a reality show centered around the redesigned 2013 Ford Escape. (I never saw it, but based on the title, "Escape Routes," I assume the goal was to see how far competitors could get from the dealership before their Escapes were recalled.)

So Farley obviously knows the power of reality TV, and if we can learn one thing from Donald Trump, it's that a prime-time show with inane contests and misleading editing is the best way to hire people. Coincidentally, NBC, the same network desperate enough to air "Escape Routes" and approximately 84 seasons of "The Apprentice," also recently had a show called "American Ninja Warrior."

Borrow that premise, park a couple of F-150s on camera and let America vote. It would be a chance for Fields to show off his, as Bloomberg News put it, "flashes of being a street fighter" that nearly caused an executive meeting to end in fisticuffs in July 2006 (citing a recent book published about Mulally and Ford).

Most important, it would generate huge publicity, and whoever wins could unequivocally call himself Built Ford Tough.

Instead, Ford's board seems intent on choosing Fields the traditional way, simply because he has 23 years of experience working for Ford all over the world, helped Mulally overhaul the company's culture of infighting and transformed the North American business from a disaster into a money factory.

But if Ford always took the traditional route, it never would have hired Mulally in the first place. He seems to have worked out pretty well.

You can reach Nick Bunkley at nbunkley@crain.com. -- Follow Nick on Twitter

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