John Rock has one regret: that he didn't fire Oldsmobile's advertising agency in 1993.
Rock was general manager from 1992 to 1997 and was chiefly responsible for crafting the division's current - and now failed - strategy. He retooled Oldsmobile as GM's import fighter.
Looking back from his ranch in South Dakota, he doesn't blame the lineup he helped produce. He blames poor marketing.
The plan to reposition the division 'from the traditional market slots that Oldsmobile used to play in' failed, he said. 'The message didn't effectively get out to the target customers in great enough numbers. Somehow that message didn't get communicated well.'
In the early 1990s, Buick and Oldsmobile had essentially the same customers. So GM decided to let Buick handle the traditional, older customers and use Oldsmobile to appeal to import buyers.
The Aurora, Intrigue and Alero replaced such established nameplates as the Ninety Eight, Eighty Eight and Cutlass Supreme, along with the Cutlass Ciera and Achieva.
'It was a risky repositioning. It would take some skillful marketing, and evidently it didn't work,' Rock said.
When Rock joined Oldsmobile in April 1992, the division already was hemorrhaging. Oldsmobile ended the 1992 model year selling 437,544 vehicles, down from nearly 1.1 million in the 1986 model year.
Many dealers blamed the sales slide on Oldsmobile's ad agency, Leo Burnett USA, for its failure to develop a clear brand image. Local and national dealer councils had sought an ad agency review. Burnett and its predecessor had the account since 1934.
Rock put the automaker's $140 million account up for review. But after a grueling five-month review of 15 agencies by divisional executives and dealers, Burnett won.
Rock, looking back on that decision in 1993 to keep the agency, said: 'I had them in the target and let them off the hook. It's the biggest mistake I ever made. I'm not mad. I'm sad.'
Cheri Carpenter, a spokeswoman for Leo Burnett USA, said: 'We're surprised that he has made this statement, particularly since he gave us such a ringing endorsement when he made the decision to retain Burnett in 1993. Naturally, we don't share his opinion.'
Added Rock: 'I put in a lot of time and effort in' trying to revive Oldsmobile. 'It's kind of like losing a child or a member of the family.'