3 Decades, 8 Accounts: Jeff Goodby Reflects on a Life in Cars

Now on BMW, the Goodby Silverstein co-founder is still lapping the competition

Honda. Isuzu. Porsche. Saturn. Hyundai. Chevrolet. Chrysler. And now BMW. 

For a guy who was never very interested in cars growing up, Jeff Goodby has worked on plenty of automotive accounts—eight in total, as of this spring, when Goodby Silverstein & Partners won BMW's creative account in the U.S. 

He emerged from each of those client relationships with some memorable ads, including some all-time classics, as well as plenty of great stories. 

We caught up with the GS&P co-chairman to find out what he's learned in 30 years of automotive storytelling that's always gone deeper than sheet metal. 

Muse: Congrats on BMW. That's awesome. 
Jeff Goodby: It's not bad, huh? It's crazy. 

It must be exciting to take all your car knowledge and bring it to a new brand. 
Yeah. And it's such a beautiful brand. I mean, my God, what fun. I feel very lucky to work on it.

Were you a car guy growing up?
No. I'm actually not a car guy. Rich [Silverstein] is a freak for cars. He loves them. He owns a BMW M3 and a Porsche. I guess it's a GT something, GT1 or 2. And he was a partner in Formula One. He's a freak for it. He watches the Speed channel and shit like that. I'm the opposite. 

You're along for the ride, so to speak.
Totally. And I've told them, the people at Porsche and BMW, it's great to have Rich know about that stuff, but the job is to sell me one of these things. I'm valuable because I'm an idiot but I have enough money to buy one! 

So there was never the perfect car you wanted to get?
Never even thought about it. I did drive a Honda. I drove an Isuzu. I got a Porsche Boxster for about six months, but as Robert Riccardi, the account guy here, said, it was "off brand" for me. [laughs]

Cars have been known for decades as the ultimate product to advertise. Is that still the case?
I do think it's still the case, partly because you do famous stuff for cars. If you're doing a good job, people see your things. And that doesn't mean you're just doing TV. It actually means you're doing much more than that nowadays. Look at BMW Films, or the OK Go thing we did for Chevrolet. Those are really interesting new ways to advertise automobiles. It still demands the highest level of thinking. Like a lot of things in advertising, people in the car business—especially if business is not good—tend to bail into what they think are the tried-and-true solutions. Showing lots of sheet metal with rock 'n' roll music and a guy telling you to "Get down here now!" Sadly, that still happens. And that's why a lot of car advertising isn't as interesting as it should be. 

But cars are the second most expensive thing we have in our lives. And if you don't own a house, it's the most expensive thing. There's a lot of emotion that goes into that. You grow up in it. Your kids grow up in it. You need it to protect your family, and your dog, and so on. A lot of life happens in a car. 

Porsche | A Love Story

There is a lot of emotion and nostalgia tied up in cars. On the other hand, there's this logical, practical side to cars. The Boxster film you did, "A Love Story"—that was mostly emotion. 
I think that was just me wishing I was cooler than I am. [laughs]

Well, that's a Porsche point of view too, right? There's not many cars that make you dream of the possibilities quite like a Porsche.
Yeah. I don't remember whether it's in that video or another one, but I remember talking to Rich one day and saying, "Porsches are something everybody dreams about getting, and a handful of people actually act on that dream and get it." It's interesting. But the dream is much more widespread than the people that actually ever own one. 

Was Isuzu the first car brand you worked on?
I was thinking about that. Actually, I think it was Honda.

You did dealer advertising for Honda, right?
Yeah, but they were better than just dealer advertising. It was a dealer group in Northern California. It was something we produced ourselves, shot ourselves, and I directed them. They were fun to do, and they were very popular at the time. They kind of got me personally addicted to car advertising, in a way.

Northern California Honda Dealers | Whiz Kid

What was the approach? And what did learned from that first account?
Honda already had a national profile as this very practical, simple, beautiful thing. And we thought, that's the perfect car for Northern California. It's simple. It's not extravagant. It's not a show-off car. It gets good mileage. It handles well. And you get a lot for your money. That's the way Northern Californians think about themselves—when they're not smoking something. And so we thought, that's the perfect car—even though the tagline has a million words in it. Taglines aren't supposed to do that anymore. "It's the perfect car for Northern California." And that's what it was. 

And then, in the early '90s, you got a national account with Isuzu. 
Yeah. That was a really big step for us at the time. We had a very successful relationship with them. And then we also took on Porsche. The two brands didn't compete with each other. Porsche said, "Well, we're not making an SUV." And Isuzu said, "Well, we're not making a sports car." Of course, eventually Porsche did make an SUV, the Cayenne. And when they did, we had to resign one or the other. And we resigned the wrong one! [laughs] Isuzu was a much bigger client, so we resigned Porsche and kept working on Isuzu. And then Isuzu just decided not to sell cars in North America anymore. 

Isuzu | Toy Store

You guys did such great print work for Porsche. 
Rich and I decided the problem that Porsche had was it was kind of a car for a dentist who had just gotten a divorce. It was like a piece of jewelry. People used it to show off, and it was almost tacky at that point. It was a little bit like Häagen-Dazs ice cream was at one point. It was too much of a show-off thing. We wanted to make it back into a beautiful performance machine. 

So we said, "OK. Let's not have people in the cars." We consciously did not show the people that owned the cars, so you could imagine yourself in it. And we talked a lot about it being a handmade car. And the engineering and the design. We talked about the colors and how you could pick your own colors for the car. And we made it back, slowly, into something based more on performance and beauty and integrity, and not on gold-chain-wearing gauze. 

Click on the thumbnails below to see the Porsche print work:

That's what informed that print campaign. There's just the beautiful car. We tried to capture the feeling of driving one. "Kills bugs fast." "Your own portable amusement park." I thought "Kills bugs fast" was really hilarious but that we'd get sued by Raid. We had our lawyers call them up and they went, "No. We'd love to have our line on a Porsche ad." [laughs]

That was a step up for Raid.
Yeah, it was. 

Didn't you also once crash a Porsche at a shoot?
That was a strange thing. We wanted to do this shoot—in fact, it was the shoot for the very print ads you're talking about—over in Germany with a British photographer named John Claridge. Really good photographer. But an older sort of—and I say this not for ageist reasons, but you'll see why—an older, sort of conservative guy. And the art director was there, Erich Joiner, who now owns Tool of North America. And people might not know this, but he's the son of a racecar driver. He's a very good driver himself. He's like the driver Rich wishes he was! [laughs] 

And so, Erich went over with Claridge, and they had one of only four Porsche Carrera 996 prototypes in the world. And they're out in the German countryside, and they're moving it from one place to another. And Claridge says, "Can I drive the car?" And Erich says, "Well, I don't think you should because it's a really powerful car and it's one of the prototypes." And Claridge says, "No, it's OK. I know how to drive." So Erich says OK. So they both got in the car, and Claridge was driving. And they went around a curve on a German country road. And the way that Erich described it was, Claridge was in second gear but he didn't seem to realize how powerful second gear is in this car. And he stomped on the gas and the rear wheels just came loose from the road. And it did a 180 and went over a cliff, strangely, with the two of them in it. They'd probably be dead, according to Erich, if the car hadn't hit a bunch of trees. It hit trees on the way down that broke its fall, and all the airbags went off when it hit the ground. They were both unconscious. 

Wow.
Erich ended up pulling Claridge out of the car. The rest of the crew figured out what had happened and saw them down there, so they went to the hospital and such. And they're both OK. But, so, I'm back in San Francisco and Erich calls me up and tells me about this. So I said, "I have to call up the president of Porsche in North America, Richard Ford, and tell him this." So I called him up and I said, "There's some bad news. We've totaled the prototype." And he said, "Was anybody hurt?" And I said, "No." And he said, "Oh, that's OK. It happens all the time." [laughs] I said, "Wait, what!?" He said, "We lend it to journalists, and they take it out and trash it. It's just part of the business." 

That's crazy. 
Yeah. It's a powerful car.

So then you end up with Saturn around 2002 or so. 
Jamie Barrett had just gotten here, and we put together a big pitch for Saturn. Hal Riney, of course, had done a lot of famous work to establish the brand. And I would go out and have a drink with Hal, and he'd be like, "Yeah, the work's really good, but the cars aren't, and it's going to catch up with them eventually." [laughs] I was like, "OK."

The "Sheet Metal" spot is a real moment in time. Almost avant garde, in a way.
It really was. The reason I quoted Hal there is, in this case, the cars were something you really didn't want to show. It was the opposite of Porsche.

Saturn | Sheet Metal

You picked the two extremes!
Yeah! With Saturn, it was about the relationship people had with the cars, and what they wanted from a car, and so it was more about people. We tried to sell them the line early on, "People first," which they eventually did adopt at the very end of our relationship with them. But it was hard to get them into that mind-set.

They wanted to sell cars. 
They wanted to show sheet metal and talk about it. I mean, that's what happens with car places. But that particular commercial, which Jamie and Noam Murro did together, was a really wonderful thing. It was liberating to think of the world as something where the cars just took care of you and got you from place to place. And a company actually thought about you, instead of about the cars they're selling. I thought that was interesting. 

The visuals are so memorable.
Very memorable.

And self-referential. Calling it "Sheet Metal" referred to auto advertising. 
It did. In fact, that was in the line at the end of it. I think it says something about, "We don't see sheet metal. We see the people who drive it." 

Then you were briefly on Hyundai for a year, year and a half, something like that? 
At least. I think longer. 

Was it longer?
Yeah. Hyundai was really a fun brand to work on. Joel Ewanick, who was our client at Porsche and then at Hyundai and then at Chevrolet, is sometimes a sticky character, but he definitely wants to change the world with the things he does, and he gets himself into all kinds of crazy situations. He somehow became the head of marketing at Hyundai, and we pitched it and won a long pitch. 

It was a good time to work on Hyundai. They had new cars coming out that were really nice. The Koreans are very good at looking at what the Japanese and the Americans do and stealing the best parts of it and making nice cars. So they had just come out with a new line of cars that year, or were about to, that were really nice. And I thought to myself, "This is a fun advertising problem because people think the brand is terrible." And I remember being in a focus group where a guy said they were "shitboxes made in sheds in Korea." [laughs] I said, "OK. Well, that's what we have to solve right there." 

So we did a few things. We had to do the best car photography in the world—to take these things and make them look great. But really, the key thing was that we hired Jeff Bridges to be the voice of the brand, which was awesome. It really made a big difference. It made them seem thoughtful. Nobody believed these were good cars, so we used the tagline, "Think about it." Which was the lowest form of advocacy you could come up with. [laughs]

As a call to action, that's modest!
The first ads we did didn't even have the Hyundai name on them. We just talked about cars and said, "Wouldn't it be nice if there was a car that did this?" 

I remember that.
Yeah. It had no brand on it, and then we started running brand ads because we had Jeff. And the brand started to come up, little by little. And this was 2008, when the depression hit. Nobody could sell a car. I have a clip from the NBC Nightly News where Brian Williams is saying Hyundai sales went up while everybody else's went down. And the reason that happened was because—and I give Joel credit for this—there was some kind of program that some consultants were going around trying to pitch to different car companies. Their idea was, in the middle of this recession, some car company should offer to take your car back if you lose your job. 

Ah, yeah. This was the "Assurance" thing, right?
Exactly. So, these guys are a bunch of bean counters. And they went to Volkswagen, and Volkswagen didn't want it. And they came to Joel. And Joel said, "Oh, this is a cool program. I think it might work." And he came to me and said, "What would you call it if we did this?" And I said, "Can you really do it?" And he said, "Yeah." 

Hyundai | Coming to America

Interestingly, very few people ever returned their cars. Even if they lost their jobs. They love their cars. They need their cars. They don't bring them back. And that was the magic of it. We just seemed so reassuring about this whole thing, and so confident in the cars. So we named it "Assurance" and we launched it on the Super Bowl. And it was an immense hit. I'm not going to take credit for thinking up the program, but I do take credit for naming it and advertising it. 

A safety net you don't use, but that gives you confidence.
It really worked. And people associated the brand with that in this wonderful way. And by the way, when we started working on Hyundai, they said they had the best warranty on a car. It's 10 years and 150,000 miles or something. So we tried to advertise that. And people just didn't care! In fact, when we advertised that, they said, "Well, you need a good warranty because your cars are so shitty!" [laughs] Which was a really weird kind of logic, but that's what they saw. You couldn't even bring up the warranty. But this "Assurance" thing turned that around and turned it on its head somehow. It was amazing. 

Then you get to work with the big guys over at GM, right? 
Yeah. That was another Joel episode.

That must have been a whirlwind couple of years.
It was like being in a movie, man. It really was. You had your hands on the biggest car account in the world. What you did was going to be seen by a lot of people, but at the same time, under great scrutiny by the press and people in the business. And it was not a good time to sell Chevrolets. It was a hard time to sell them. 

But the experience of being in Detroit—I would never trade it. I loved working there. I loved Detroit. And I loved working on the brand, even though it was just crazy. We did a video with OK Go. We negotiated with the Beatles to use their music on Chevy advertising, only to have it fall through at the last minute. Joel went out and made this deal with Manchester United to put the Chevy logo on their uniforms, which was unheard of. Basically got fired for it. And now, of course, they look at it as one of the smartest things they've ever done. It was just a crazy time. 

I'm very proud of the work we did for them. But it was hard to take something like "Chevy Runs Deep" and push it up through the sheet-metal mind-set of Detroit. Because it was all about emotion.

Chevrolet | Then and Now

There's a lot of nostalgia in that work. The "Then and Now" spot in particular.
A lot of nostalgia. And we did things like the commercial with the dad and the son who found their dad's car up in Canada, and fixed it up, and gave it back to him. We filmed the whole experience. A lot of wonderful stuff, especially in the introduction of the Sonic, that small car that we did the OK Go thing for. We dropped it from an airplane, parachuted it out of an airplane. We had one of the leading skateboard guys drive it over a skateboard jump and actually kick-flip it. Scared the shit out of him.

Chevrolet | Sonic case study

Rich really wanted to bring back the old Dinah Shore "See the USA in your Chevrolet" music. We actually got the cast of Glee to do a two-minute version of that. 

That's awesome.
A lot of big stuff I wouldn't trade for anything. When Joel got fired—we were still working on the business—he was really bummed the day he got fired. I went over to his house in Detroit, and I said, "Well, did you learn anything from this?" And he said, "Yeah. I learned that next time, I'm really going to go for it. I'm not going to be careful with people like this. I'm going to get fired anyway, so why don't I just fucking go for it?" [laughs] 

Oh, man. 
I said, "Good for you."

Absolutely. And then you got fired! 
Yeah. Not long after him, we were fired.

But later, you ended up doing some stuff for Chrysler, over the last couple of years. 
Yeah. I went over to Chrysler just because somebody knew somebody there. And I had a good time talking to them. And somehow, they made us into the agency of record for the Chrysler brand for about a year. It was hard to get anything finished. You've probably heard stories about that place. If you're not an agency of record, it's punitive financially. If you are an agency of record, you can make some money. But you basically get paid only when things run. A lot of agencies do projects for them in hopes of having things for their reels, but you have to get them to run, and that's not easy. 

They had four different agencies produce stuff for the Super Bowl this year.
Yeah, we ended up producing something for them this year.

RAM | Vikings

The Vikings thing. That was pretty fun.
That was not an easy sell. I talked to Jim Riswold, who wrote that thing, and I was the creative director. He and I kind of cooked it up. We were at a bar one day and I said, "You know, there's just not enough money to make it. They won't make it. It's a great idea, but they'll never do it." And Riswold said, "Let's call [director Joe] Pytka up. He'll do it. He really wants to do something like this. He'll just lose his shirt and do it!" [laughs] I said, "OK." So, sure enough, we called Joe up—who I don't know at all at that point—and Riswold talks him into doing this spot. And Pytka's really into it. And luckily, that's how it happened. I mean, it wouldn't have happened if Joe wasn't so behind it. It was shot in Iceland. It's fucking freezing cold over there, and Riswold has leukemia. Everywhere he went, I had to have oxygen for him. It was brutal. 

And now, BMW. What's the creative challenge with that brand at the moment?
Just simplify things a little bit. They have a lot of models, and they have new things coming out. It's to gather that all together and make one consistent message out of it again, and to add a lot of emotion to it. I think "The Ultimate Driving Machine," which is probably the best car tagline ever, it gets a little machiney sometimes. It can be cold. We need to put some emotion back into it. 

You guys are the ones to do it.
It should be fun. It's a crazy industry, but as you were saying before, it is important to people's lives. And it's fun in that respect, you know? 

No doubt.
It's funny how things that are important to your life are the things that are fun to work on sometimes. We're pitching a toilet paper thing now. [laughs] You find yourself working on something like that, and at first you go, "Oh, that's going to be terrible." But then, really, it's fun because everybody knows about it. Everybody uses it, and it's good. 

It's everyday life.
It is. It's real life. And at least you're not working with some internet plumbing company!

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Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd is editor in chief of Clio Awards.