John Holt, who is retiring in September as digital marketing chief of ADP Dealer Services, advises dealers to rely less on third-party lead generators.
"Dealers should be spending their first dollars on their own Web sites," Holt said. "It's your brand. Build a good Web site and drive traffic to it."
Holt, 57, pioneered Web sites at the automakers and their dealers first through the company he founded, Cobalt Group, and over the past four years as a senior vice president with ADP Dealer Services.
ADP Dealer Services bought Cobalt for $400 million in 2010 and turned it into its digital marketing arm. Cobalt provides Web sites and digital marketing for dealers and automakers generating sales of $244.1 million in the nine months ended March 31.
Holt said last week he is retiring in good health to climb mountains with his three daughters and spend more time with his "long-sacrificing" wife, Susan.
His successor at ADP is Scott Mathews, a 12-year veteran with the company.
In an exit interview, Holt echoed comments this year by Mike Jackson, CEO of AutoNation, the nation's largest dealership group. Jackson said dealerships should build their own brands by strengthening their Web sites and driving visitors there with marketing dollars.
Jackson said the company had embarked on a multiyear, $50 million brand-building plan to do just that, while cutting its reliance on third-party sites such as AutoTrader.com, Cars.com and TrueCar for sales prospects.
Building dealership Web sites has been Holt's stock in trade since founding Cobalt in 1995. He said most dealers embraced the power of their own Web sites after the 2008-09 recession left them with paltry budgets for TV and radio advertising.
He said he is heartened that in the face of rising U.S. vehicle sales, dealers haven't reversed course and shifted money back into traditional advertising at the expense of digital.
In fact, dealers in aggregate spent 33 percent of their advertising dollars on digital marketing in 2013 vs. 26.5 percent in 2012, according to data from the National Automobile Dealers Association.
Holt said strong auto sales from dealerships' Web site leads are driving the increase as well as additional automaker subsidies or co-op money that promote the spending.