DETROIT -- Chrysler Group's new marketing chief is said to puff away in nonsmoking offices. He's not much for political correctness. And when it comes to advertising he likes to take risks -- plenty of them.
Olivier Francois, the Fiat executive tapped this month to lead all Chrysler Group's marketing, advertising, brand development and strategies as well as to be CEO of the Chrysler vehicle brand, wouldn't agree to an interview. But those who know him at Fiat say he's a rule-breaker with an appetite for ads that generate controversy.
The pushing-50 Francois maintains his day job as head of Fiat's Lancia brand. Under his tutelage, the brand became talked about very quickly. "He is very courageous and thinks his ads should be, first of all, noticed," said Anne de Maupeou, co-creative chief of Marcel, Paris, noting that "being controversial was part of his brief on the new (Lancia) Delta" model.
Marcel's TV commercial for the Delta featured actor Richard Gere driving the car into Tibet and aired during the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Beijing. "As planned it created a lot of buzz on the internet and a lot of coverage on TV news and newspapers," Maupeou said.
Of course, Fiat later was forced to make a formal apology to the Chinese government for the Tibet-friendly commercial, but that's hardly the point.
The Paris-born executive also grabbed headlines by signing Lancia as the main sponsor of last December's World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates, chaired by Mikhail Gorbachev and Walter Veltroni. He greenlighted a Lancia commercial in tribute to Aung Suu Kvi, the laureate winner still under house arrest, that featured former Soviet leader Gorbachev at a Nobel Prize event, as well as a Lancia ad featuring French first lady Carla Bruni.
Francois regularly holds agency pitches, seeing shops both big and small, said another European agency exec who has worked with him. The marketer is "direct ... hard but fair," said the executive, and he has good judgment, although he is stronger on style than strategy.
Francois is also a fast mover. In fall 2005, Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Italy's Fiat and Chrysler Group, hired the then-44-year-old Francois away from Citroen as sales director of the Fiat brand; a week later he moved Francois to head the carmaker's Lancia brand. Then in January, the CEO handed Francois oversight of marketing of all Fiat's automotive brands, a responsibility he'll keep in addition to all his other duties at Chrysler, where U.S. new-vehicle sales plunged 40 percent in the first nine months of the year.
As might be expected, the married father of two has an enviable track record when it comes to extracting risk-taking work from his ad agencies and boosting vehicle sales. During his four years heading Citroen in Italy, he significantly goosed vehicle sales and is credited with keeping Lancia's numbers stable over the past tumultuous year with some successful ad campaigns. In fact, the Fiat brand won Gold Lions at Cannes this year and also nabbed the Cyber category's Grand Prix for the Eco: Drive project by AKQA, London.
Francois will execute his duties via a trans-Atlantic routine, a Chrysler spokesman said.