At Inland: Getting Auto Advertising Out Of Reverse Gear

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

General Motors’ exclusive media planning agency has a message for the newspaper industry: Just do what we want — or else.

In a blunt-speaking presentation Monday during the opening sessions of Inland Press Association’s annual meeting in Chicago, GM Planworks executive Christine Jankauskas told publishers that if newspapers want to turn around their slumping automotive advertising franchise, they must simplify rates, stop charging premiums for certain ads, and print quirky ad designs without any backtalk.

GM Planworks is a planning unit of Starcom Mediavest Group that exclusively manages the $3.2 billion media-planning and -buying business of the auto giant. The agency has pushed for innovative ad placements such as the so-called “goalpost” ads for Hummer that wrap on both sides of a page or borderless Chevy ads that are surrounded by editorial.

“We received so many complaints from a production standpoint on the borderless ad,” Jankauskas said. “Figure it out — don’t make it the client’s problem.”

Jankauskas’ lecture comes at a time when automotive advertising has become one of newspapers’ worst-performing segments. Before she talked, moderate Tom Shaw of Shaw Newspapers asked a show of hands from newspapers that had managed to increase their auto volume this year. Not a single hand went up.

One newspaper is taking the auto industry’s complaints to heart.

The Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville threw out its typically complex automotive rate structure, and replaced it with just three rates pegged to levels of spending commitments, or no commitment.

“Automotive advertising is typically the lowest-priced advertising, and we kept it that way when we simplified the rates,” the Times-Union’s auto and real estate sales manager, Butch Peiker, told the Inland publishers. Low pricing, he added, is not likely to go away soon, if ever: “I think we’re just going to have to live with the idea that automotive is going to be your lowest-rate advertising.”

The newspaper increased volume — and reinforced valuable relationships with dealers — earlier this year by launching a quarterly standalone insert very similar to the GM Showroom inserts that GM Planworks has rolled out in selected markets.

Peiker said the paper worked with the regional Chevrolet dealers association to create Chevy Showroom, an eight-page insert printed on 45-pound Hi-brite paper with editorial contributed by the dealers. Each issue profiles four dealers. The paper distributes 190,000 copies through its Florida and Georgia papers, plus a 45,000-copy overrun for the dealers use.

The product has sold out advertising through the Spring 2007 issue, Peiker said.

GM Showroom has been a boon for the papers that land it, but Jankauskas told the Inland publishers that GM Planworks has no control over which markets are chosen. In Chicago, the product is called GM Overdrive. In Baltimore, with a bigger import market, it’s called Auto Trends. And in Texas markets, it’s branded as a Chevy product.

Despite this encouraging commitment to the medium, however, Jankauskas warned publishers that “in GM, like other automakers, the thinking is that newspapers are too hard to buy.”

Newspapers should lose the day-of-week rates, the repeat rates, the premiums, and other complications, she said: “Just give us he best rate the first time.”

Online and other new media, she said pointedly, “are measurable, don’t put up roadblocks, don’t tell us how hard things are to do — and don’t charge premiums.”

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