Toby Barlow sinks his teeth into the local ad industry

Toby Barlow isn't known for his low profile.

The chief creative officer at Team Detroit (Ford's agency of record) is known for his fiction (Sharp Teeth, Baba Yaga), his non-profit work (Write A House), his advocacy for the city of Detroit, and his award-winning work in advertising.

Barlow also is known to have an opinion or two about the advertising world. He recently invited Metromode's Jon Zemke to his office in Dearborn to talk about the state of the local advertising industry, why Write-A-House set up shop in Hamtramck instead of downtown Detroit, and how newspapers should take a real stab at killing Craigslist.

There is a lot of churn in the relationship between Americans and their cars these days. Young people don't love driving the way their parents did. Cars are becoming more autonomous. How do advertisers stay ahead of a curve that is constantly changing directions?
The first thing to keep in mind is these are amazing times. The technological advancements in automotive in the last five years are incredible. There really wasn't anything as incredible since they introduced the 8-track tape. 

From an advertising point of view, for the last five years we have been like kids in the candy store. How do you tell these new stories? It's not just about how much power is in the engine. You're talking about plug-in hybrids, and dozens of things that are changing the dynamic. We're incredibly fortunate. The question is how long will that continue? How long will these innovations happen and be distinctive from nameplate to nameplate before they go back to becoming commodities? We're still in the flush of it. It's a great time to be advertising cars.

You're talking dozens of different changes. How do you choose which ones to highlight?
In advertising it's about the first, best, and onliest. If you have some differentiating product that serves a customer's need then you want to celebrate that. Sometimes it doesn't have to be a first, best, and onliest. Sometimes it can be something everybody has but nobody is talking about. The best example is the Volkswagon Darth Vader commercial. That celebrates a technology everybody has but they found a really creative way to do that.

With all of the new technologies that are coming up, it seems like it would be harder for a bigger ship like Team Detroit or Lowe Campbell Ewald to turn and focus on new things coming out.
Our problem really isn't our size. It's the multitude of things we have to talk about. On the Ford side, we have placed our bets on quality, green, safe and smart. We try to tell stories that underscore those priorities. Once you prioritize where you want to go and what you want the brand to stand for, then it's much easier to tell the tale.

During every economic downturn, Metro Detroit's conventional wisdom is all about embracing diversifying the local economy. Then we always forget about the value of diversification when the economy and auto industry pickup. Did we finally learn our lesson this time around?
I don't think it's the recession as much as the schizophrenic behavior of other clients. Chrysler, I don't think it even has an agency of record. GM has changed its I don't know how many times. If you're going to want to be in advertising in this town you're going to really want to diversify just for the sake of survival. Lowe Campbell Ewald has been able to do quite well because it does really strong work for other clients. 

Team Detroit does have several other big names in its portfolio, but Ford is still its meal ticket. Is that healthy to have one big client mean so much to one agency?
It's definitely healthy for us. I don't know that it would work for every category for every client. For us it works because automotive is a particularly complex business. Ford has a lot of different priorities that need to be assembled and arranged, and you need to find the right ratios. If you start adding to the complexity of different agencies arguing over why they should be paid more then everything gets confused. A huge competitive advantage we have is the stability that has allowed us to think more strategically.

There has been a lot of criticism lately over local medium-sized businesses using buy local ad campaigns but they don't use local agencies. Bank of Ann Arbor comes to mind. Is that a legitimate criticism?
At the end of the day a company needs to hire the best agency to tell its story. With that said, we have amazing capabilities in this region. You're only as good as your client. A brave client is going to get brave work, and a timid client is going to get timid work. God bless them if they are getting the results they want from those agencies. Proximity has really helped. We're across the street from our clients. If I had an independent business and I was hiring an agency I would definitely look at a Team Detroit or a Lowe Campbell Ewald or a Doner or somebody locally. It would be great to have a partner close by. I believe personal interaction is a huge part in the success of a brand.

You can build trust. You can get over disagreements quicker. You can celebrate wins. There are a lot of reasons. Why an Ann Arbor Bank would choose an out-of-state agency when they can find people who can tell their story just as well saddens and befuddles me.

So the work they are having done now could just as easily be done by people here?
I don't know the work they are doing now, which says enough.

How does a big company like Team Detroit or Lowe Campbell Ewald compete against boutique advertising and SEO firms? 
If you're a boutique firm you are fighting to be a priority. You're not able to think strategically. If you're a boutique firm that does online advertising then every problem looks like an online advertising problem. As opposed to thinking holistically what is the media solution here? We're able to look at things agnostically and come up with the right strategy. We're able to put an intellectual rigor to it that doesn't include our own self-interest. That's an amazing competitive advantage.

So do you believe in the idea of smaller, nimbler, faster when it comes to smaller firms?
What is the competitive advantage? If you're a boutique agency with a diverse client base then you can walk away. That's where your honesty comes from. That's the only competitive advantage they have. We can get to market just as quickly if the client wants to work with us on it.

I read a story in Fortune from a few years ago where you're quoted as saying you took the job at Team Detroit and moved to downtown Detroit because it was "too interesting to say no." You also said that deciding to move to Detroit prompted your girlfriend to cry. When it comes to attracting talent, can Detroit ever become the place that excites people without making their loved ones cry?
I definitely think so. It depends on where you are in your life. I have moved people here from San Francisco and other enviable markets. There are many different Detroits. If you're a family person then this is your Eden. There is no better place. If you're looking at an urban existence then we need to still tackle the education aspect. Besides that Detroit is very different place today.

Speaking of talent attraction, you're a co-founder of Write A House, which brings writers to Detroit and gives them a house near the Hamtramck/Detroit border. Wouldn't it make more sense to put them closer to the city's cultural center or downtown area where so many creative firms are setting up shop?
The homes need to be affordable. The Hamtramck area has a lot of affordable housing. We wanted to put people in a neighborhood where they could find some people that were doing the same things they were doing. There are a few artists in that neighborhood. Also, it's not that far. It's only a 15-20 minute bike ride to downtown. Everything is close and everything is flat. We looked at Hubbard Farms and other areas. It really was about: where can we find a cluster of $1,000 homes?

Cadillac moves its headquarters to New York. Smart move to do something different or one more distraction for a company that needs fewer of them?
I can't fault them. It's fine to shake things up. What I question is moving to SoHo. It's not Soho in 1989 or 1972. It's SoHo as a global mall. Being close to the Adidas story or the Prada store is going to make you a more contemporary brand. If you really wanted that you could just as easily move to the Somerset Mall. If I was the head of Cadillac I probably would have moved it to Miami.

The idea of putting distance between Cadillac's brand and Detroit's brand does seem pretty impossible.
Maybe Cadillac needs to find its soul somewhere else. It's been searching for it for 20 years.

The newspaper business model seems increasingly dire these days. If someone put you in charge of The Detroit News or Metro Times, what would you do to make them attractive to advertisers?
Craigslist was a newspaper killer. Papers never thought of a way to fight back again that. And Craigslist hasn't really evolved its model. I don't know why The New York Times isn't saying we're going to have an incubation process that is going to find the Craigslist killer.

I don't know that institutions that old have the ability to create something new. They are always in reactive mode.
They do. It depends on the people. It's really all about who the people are and what they're sense of possibility and how desperate are they. The age of an institution isn't what keeps it from evolving. It's really about the mindset and the demands put on them.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.