Questions surround future of FCA marketing chief without Marchionne

There is no doubt Olivier Francois has benefited from his relationship with Sergio Marchionne, rising from a little-known marketer to the highest-profile CMO in the big-spending auto category.

Olivier Francois sits shotgun in a Jeep Compass parked in a sun-splashed lot fronting a music studio near West Hollywood, Calif.

Inside the shiny black crossover, an Apple rep gives the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles marketing chief a demo of CarPlay, the in-dash iPhone digital display.

Francois interrupts.

“Siri does not speak my language,” the Paris-born executive says, half-joking, before being assured that, indeed, Siri can be set to speak French.

But music is the only language that seems to matter to Francois on this late June morning. The Frenchman — known for selling the American dream in the form of big-budget ads starring Eminem, Clint Eastwood and countless other celebrities — is inside the Warner Music Group studio minutes later announcing his latest star-studded campaign. The ad blitz includes songs from 10 artists, from Alice Cooper to OneRepublic — whose frontman, Ryan Tedder, is an invited guest at the event along with entertainment media and music industry execs.

“Each of our brands has its own sound, its own score, its own playlist,” Francois boasts before showing off the ads. The effort — which plugs free six-month Apple Music streaming subscriptions for buyers of Jeep, Chrysler, Dodge, Ram and Fiat vehicles — is the kind of glitzy Hollywood collaboration in which Francois revels.

But this deal comes at a pivotal moment for him and his company. Francois, 56, is entering a period of uncertainty as corporate changes loom at the Italian-American automaker. On Saturday, the company named Mike Manley, the head of its Jeep and Ram brand, to replace Sergio Marchionne as CEO. Marchionne had been expected to retire early next year, but his deteriorating health accelerated the timeline.

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Marchionne, known for his blunt talk and black sweaters and for ushering Chrysler from bankruptcy in 2009, promoted Francois through the ranks, including installing him as chief marketing officer in 2011.

“I’d be shocked if he were to stay past Sergio,” one former FCA employee told Ad Age, a sister publication of Automotive News, this month, speaking on condition of anonymity and echoing an opinion that has been widely held in Detroit for a while.

But Rebecca Lindland, executive analyst at Kelley Blue Book, said in an emailed statement Saturday that “I believe Olivier will stay,” noting that “Olivier and Mike have worked closely together over the years.”

In an interview after the June campaign event, Francois insisted he wasn’t going anywhere. Asked about Francois’ status in light of the new CEO, an FCA spokeswoman on Sunday referred to Francois’ answer in June that he was not planning to leave.

But staying carries risks, including operating under a new CEO who might not give him the autonomy he enjoyed under Marchionne.

“Sergio clearly let him do what he wanted to do, which is an enviable relationship between a CEO and CMO,” said Peter DeLorenzo, a former auto marketing executive and editor in chief of Autoextremist.com.

There is no doubt Francois has benefited from the relationship, rising from a little-known marketer to the highest-profile CMO in the big-spending auto category.

Francois has used his power to run ad campaigns that made big cultural statements, such as 2011’s award-winning “Imported From Detroit” effort starring Eminem, credited with burnishing the image of Chrysler and the Motor City.

Manley, 54, a native of England, has led Jeep since 2009 and Ram since 2015.

“Manley is grounded in the fundamentals, and he’s particularly savvy when it comes to knowing what dealers need to do their best,” said DeLorenzo.

How his promotion to CEO affects Francois’ working relationship with Manley “remains to be seen,” DeLorenzo added. “But I expect it to be business as usual for Francois, at least for the foreseeable future.”

Manley has a reputation as a “car guy,” which could affect his willingness to go along with some of the big sweeping ads Francois has pursued. He “doesn’t share Olivier’s passion for world-class advertising,” said one agency executive. But “he could bring more discipline and professionalism into FCA’s relationships with agencies.”

Read the full Ad Age article here.

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