Fiat Chrysler's Olivier François on Why Music Is 'The Best Investment' and the One Artist Who Said No (After the Ad Was Shot)

Olivier François
Matthew LaVere

“We are always discovering,” says François, photographed Oct. 30 at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles in Auburn Hills, Mich.

The king of car commercials on how music makes a successful ad and the one musician who remains out of reach.

Olivier François, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles' chief marketing officer, smiles as he watches Sting and Shaggy's Miami Vice-themed video for their current single, "Gotta Get Back My Baby," from their Grammy-nominated album 44/876. The star of the video -- the "Baby" in its title -- is a zippy Fiat Spider convertible.

"When Shaggy has a new song, he calls me and says, ‘If you want, I can put a car in it,'" says the Paris-born François, sitting in his spacious, light-filled office in FCA's Auburn Hills, Michigan, headquarters, 30 miles north of Detroit. "They needed a car, I sent a car."

Such are François' deep ties with the music community: He's shared chicken and waffles with Diddy (the combination baffled his French palette); Shaggy attended François' 2014 wedding to Italian singer Arianna BergamaschiPharrell Williams sends him music directly, often before his own label hears it. The friendships have paid off: FCA boasts 19 billion YouTube views of music videos featuring their cars.

Since becoming CMO of FCA in 2011, François -- who is also head of Fiat brand and splits his time between Auburn Hills and FCA's Italian headquarters in Turin -- has become known for his bold and often brash style, resulting in some of the automotive industry's most provocative ads. While most car companies use music, François' ads stand out for their cinematic story telling -- think back to Chrysler's gritty 2011 Eminem-starring Super Bowl spot, "Imported from Detroit," or the 2015 Jeep Renegade ad featuring X Ambassadors' song, "Renegades," that broke the band.

"I've worked on countless campaigns with Olivier and what stands out for me is his entire approach to music and how he uses it.It's almost like he is making a movie with a beginning, middle and end," says Brian Monaco, president/global CMO for Sony/ATV Music Publishing, who has worked often with François. "He thinks deeply about the lyric, the melody and the production and how they synchronize with the message he is trying to convey." The ads drive not only car sales, but song sales, too. Following the use of a rare version of Queen's "We Will Rock You" in a 2018 Super Bowl spot for Ram trucks, "Not only did we see an immediate uplift in download sales and streaming activity for the song," Monaco says, "the ad also provided a timely reminder to the millions watching of the power of the band's music before the release of [the film] Bohemian Rhapsody later in the year."

Matthew LaVere
Dodge has been a part of the Fast & Furious franchise since its inception, including the video for Wiz Khalifa’s “See You Again” from Furious 7. 

On this fall day, François, 57, is finalizing the year-end Big Finish campaign, a series of holiday spots designed to drive people into the showroom. Unlike some of his competitors, François would never be so obvious as to use traditional holiday tunes. Instead, the Dodge ad features a heavy metal version of "Santa Claus is Back in Town"; Jeep uses a new take on "White Christmas," created and performed by OneRepublic specifically for the ad; Ram highlights Gwen Stefani's 2017 holiday original "You Make It Feel Like Christmas"; and Chrysler Pacifica reimagines "Jingle Bells" as a rap track, "Lit Christmas."

"My idea is to have this disruptive approach to the Christmas song," he says. "My hope is that a couple washing dishes in the kitchen overhears the ad and goes, ‘What the hell is that? We know the song, but we've never heard it like that.'"

This summer, FCA was rocked when François' longtime mentor and close friend, CEO Sergio Marchionne, stepped down suddenly and subsequently died. Mike Manley, head of FCA's Jeep and Ram brands, was named new CEO. François has navigated the transition, adding that as head of FCA's "internal ad agency," he and Manley have worked together closely for years. "He's Jeep, a big brand here; I'm Fiat, a big brand [in Italy]," François says. "We know each other well and, more importantly, we speak the same language." 

You've said music is the "best return on investment on Planet Marketing." Why?

Marketing is about making a connection. You can hire George Clooney [or] big sports celebrities who will get you there, but music gets you there at a lower cost. This is something more specific to FCA: I have the beauty of all these brands and I need to give each brand a different persona, a language, tone of voice. Music helps me heavily forge this identity of each brand: Country music for Ram; rock and roll for Jeep; hard rock to show your muscle for Dodge. Chrysler, we started with Eminem, so I stick with hip-hop.

Matthew LaVere
Congressional Record from 2011 includes remarks introduced into the House of Representatives by former Rep. Candice Miller citing the significance of Chrysler’s “Imported From Detroit” Super Bowl ad. 

The "Imported from Detroit" ad starred Eminem and "Lose Yourself" at a time when Detroit was struggling and Chrysler was emerging from bankruptcy after a bailout. Other FCA ads have similarly captured the American zeitgeist. Did you grow up studying American culture?

No, no, no... I'm a total fraud. [Laughs] You should have seen me half an hour ago in a meeting for a Ram commercial. I was making fun of myself, I had no clue. Country music, as far as I understand, is all about cowboys, beer, breakups, trucks. Very often, I stop and say, "Explain to me…" I'm global CMO. I'm not supposed to be a specialist of every culture. We are always discovering. My role is to have this little antenna. That's what you develop -- sensitivity.

Surprisingly, the 2011 Chrysler ad didn't originally feature "Lose Yourself."

It was with beautiful images of Detroit with a song from Jack White, [another] son of our city, and it was [The White Stripes'] "Seven Nation Army." They made a [test version] with images of Detroit and the narration and the music and I remembered this "Lose Yourself" song that my sons had played for me. That's a dose of luck, of being extremely sensitive to what's going on. It's a lot about having people you trust in the room and seeing what's going on in their eyes.

While you'll use a classic song, such as Queen's "We Will Rock You," you stay away from current hits. Why?

It's an incredible, stupid waste of money that I see everywhere. If you have a new hit that's playing on radio 10 times a day, so you hear it in your car on the way to the office, in the supermarket, everywhere, then it's 8 p.m. and a commercial plays it, the couple washing dishes after dinner aren't going to turn their head and go, "Oh my God, what is that song?" They're not going to even look. Never use a current hit -- that's a typical waste of money of incompetent CMOs.

Matthew LaVere
A turntable representing FCA’s musical partnerships and François’ days as a music producer.

You haven't been able to license a Bruce Springsteen song. Who else has eluded you?

I never really tried [with Springsteen]. I take for granted, and maybe I'm wrong, that everyone knows that Bruce won't do it. I tell you the one that I couldn't have: I have a beautiful commercial with Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" and I was so convinced that I shot the commercial. He didn't say yes. It happens. This is the beauty of dealing with real artists.

What makes you say no to an artist who wants to use one of your cars in a music video?

The No. 1 reason, by far, is reputation. Did that guy or that band do something stupid a while ago? Do people remember? Or we just do not share their values. Maybe they're very controversial. We look very carefully at the lyrics and if there is something [objectionable] in the lyrics, then we pass. It's very small money that we pay. We aren't going to pay for the whole music video, for sure, but I'm accountable, [so] I say, why would we spend money, as little as it is, to hurt ourselves?

The media buy for this year's Summer of Jeep advertising campaign, featuring a performance of "Connection," a new song from OneRepublic, was $25 million. That's far beyond anything any label can provide.

That's the way you do this business: Give me your song, brand, your logo, your movie, and I will give you visibility in return. [Labels] can't make money selling physical product, so they need to lower their cost of doing business. We can help. Whether it's a little check for a music video or a huge one for the exposure of a new song in a commercial, that's where our marketing money comes into play.

The full Summer campaign was across several of your brands and included Alice Cooper (Dodge), Brothers Osborne (Ram), DeJ Loaf and Leon Bridges (Fiat), and was tied in with Apple's CarPlay, with branded playlists and a free six-month CarPlay subscription. Did it sell cars?

During the two months of that campaign, we did plus-11 percent in sales across the companies. Our market share [went] from 11 to 13, leading us to beat Ford and [we] attribute it to that campaign and music and Apple.

Matthew LaVere
A mock movie poster for Fiat’s award-winning 2015 Super Bowl commercial, “Blue Pill.”

Do you get a percentage of the money if car buyers convert their free trial to a paid subscription?

Not necessarily. What I get is the association with Apple, which is a good association.

There was a Ram Truck side stage at the CMT Awards in June. Do you still do many tour sponsorships? 

No. I wish we could. You can approach a tour sponsorship two ways:  I get visibility for my brand or my product because I have 10,000 people seeing my logo. This clearly is not of big interest when you are as established as Jeep or Dodge or Ram or Chrysler in America. We sponsored the Rolling Stones tour in Europe because Jeep in Europe is not very well established. The thing I didn't crack in America is how can I turn an impression like this into a massive test drive opportunity. We do still have many partnerships in country music and trucks. The country audience is a little bit more targeted [since] there are only three truck brands, Ford, GM and us.

What commercial are you most proud of creating?

Eminem. It was incredibly meaningful. If you have one chance, one opportunity -- that was Chrysler's, it was Detroit's, it was all of America's. We were going to make it or run out of business as a company and a town. All my pitches today are about how can we join hands with the [music] industry to make them stronger and more profitable, help them cut their costs, give exposure to their tracks. That was absolutely not the case with Eminem because it was an old song, but it helped in another way because everyone was very incredulous in terms of, "How did you get that song?" It opened up doors and it helped me to realize that nothing was impossible... Besides Springsteen.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 15 issue of Billboard.