For several months before October 30, 2001, when Jacques A. Nasser “retired” from the president and CEO position at the Ford Motor Company, the plight of Ford was all about the Firestone/SUV rollover problem. While that was horrible, in the inside world of auto, the pundits blamed Nasser for something equally heinous: he looked beyond cars and trucks. Sure, he said lame-sounding things like “putting on the consumer headset.” But what he was talking about makes an immense amount of sense. Nasser determined that the “business” of the Ford Motor Company went beyond cars and trucks. He recognized that Ford sells products to consumers. While an F-150 or a Jaguar S-Type is certainly more dear in terms of outlay than, say, a tube of Crest Complete, the people who are buying these products are—gasp!—consumers. Sure, the tires cost a whole lot more than a tube of dentifrice. But when you get right down to it, there are personal predilections when it comes to the purchase of any product. When someone goes into a showroom to check out new vehicles, it is not just about transportation. If that was the case, then people who don’t haul things on a regular basis wouldn’t buy pickup trucks, and there is probably no good reason why anyone needs a Jaguar of any type. It is a matter of emotions and economics. The car business isn’t just about cars. At least it shouldn’t be for companies that plan to be successful and relevant. Which is what Nasser seemed to recognize. That’s what he was right about. And it contributed to his “retirement.” Nasser apparently figured that Ford, to get a more consistent revenue stream, needed to move the company into other areas, such as repair. He’d also committed to the Internet as a substantive channel for the automotive business, a mistake he wasn’t alone (by a long shot) in making. Then there was the interest in things around telematics, which would provide a base for paid-for services (think OnStar). The goal was to reach the consumer at more points than when they came to pick up a new car.
I thought about Nasser when reading Leap: A Revolution in Creative Business Strategy by Bob Schmetterer (John Wiley & Sons; New York; $29.95). Let me hasten to point out that Schmetterer is the chairman and CEO of Euro RSCG Worldwide, which happens to be what many of us would consider to be an “advertising agency,” but creating advertising is only a part of what this global firm does. Essentially, the premise of the book is that the companies that are successful realize and deploy what he has trademarked as “Creative Business Ideas,” which are approaches that go well beyond the status quo. (They are also generated by cooperating with the likes of outfits including Euro RSCG Worldwide). But here’s an idea of Schmetterer’s that is worth both the price of the book and the time that you’d spend reading it: “There is no such thing as a mundane product or mundane business. Only mundane ideas.” Nowadays, those who pursue the mundane are going to be the ones who fail.
Schmetterer, who literally worked his way to the top so he knows what it is like at the bottom, writes, “The greatest danger, especially in tough times when people are afraid of losing their jobs, is not that great creative thinking will come to a roaring halt. It’s that brilliant creative thinking will continue to go on, but no one will present their ideas because they are afraid. Afraid of being rejected. Afraid of being fired.” Nasser wasn’t afraid. And I’ll bet that when vehicle sales begin to fall off, some of his ideas will prove to be right on.