Last year's appointment of Shahani, a 40-year-old former Nissan executive and engineer by training, was the start of a tumultuous transition period for the VW brand, which replaced its U.S. sales chief at the end of the year.
Volkswagen's quirky, funny advertising was a hit in creative circles, but many dealers, looking at a dearth of new product, were clamoring for a more tactical approach, with ads that featured stronger messages about product attributes and deals to get customers into showrooms.
Meanwhile, VW's relationship with its longtime ad agency, Deutsch LA, was showing signs of tension. The agency, which had produced the landmark ad "The Force" in 2011 and other crowd-pleasers in 2012 and 2013, sat on the bench for this year's Super Bowl while VW farmed out the work to outside agency Argonaut.
Shahani says one of his priorities since coming on board is delivering strategic briefs that communicate Volkswagen's objectives more clearly to its agency. He said this process is more rigorous and more standardized compared with the system he found when he arrived.
"I will always say that when you're unhappy with your creative, the first person you have to look at is yourself," Shahani said. "That's where I've spent a lot of my time in the last 11 months, working with the strategy team to really tighten up the process by which we do our brief."
As for the creative, he says Deutsch's work is "moving in the right direction," but said there's more work still ahead. While an account review isn't planned now, he wouldn't rule one out. "I want to see how things go," he said.
For the year, things aren't going well for Volkswagen. Its 10 percent sales increase in October ended an 18-month losing streak, but for the year, sales are down 12 percent amid an overall market that's up 6 percent. VW's lineup is short on nameplates in the red-hot SUV and crossover segments. And aside from the summertime arrival of the redesigned Golf, big-time product launches have been, and will continue to be, scarce until VW's new midsize SUV arrives in 2016.
That makes Shahani's work all the more crucial. His outreach to dealers has not only generated thematic ideas for ad campaigns, but it has also helped provide more creative direction to Deutsch at a time when Volkswagen has little new product to build a campaign around.
VW leaned on dealer feedback again in July and August for its Turbocharged Sales Event.
By listening to the dealers, "You gain some insight that you wouldn't necessarily see from syndicated data," Shahani said. "We buy all sorts of data from providers like J.D. Power or Nielsen or whomever, but you get, I think, more pertinent, front-line, fresh information from the guy who's living and breathing it every day with consumers."
Dealers do offer feedback on national ad campaigns for vehicle launches or brand-building spots, but their influence isn't as pronounced as it is in regional and seasonal campaigns.