TWENTY YEARS.
Friday, May 24, 2019 at 05:49PM
Editor

By Peter M. De Lorenzo

Detroit. Twenty years ago, when I became tired of what the ad biz had become, tired of the ass kissers and the other two-bit players who had turned what was once a pretty interesting profession into a vapid wasteland, I knew I had to do something different. I had also grown tired of seeing the auto business – as practiced here in Detroit – sink further into the Abyss of risk-avoidance-driven mediocrity, and watching legions of so-called "executives" make horrendous, piss-poor decisions day after day on behalf of their respective auto companies.

As I watched the carnage unfold around me, I knew that something had to be said by someone who had firsthand knowledge of what was going on – someone who was in the trenches and on the front lines of the ongoing battle.

That someone turned out to be me. And Ujian-nasional.info became my forum to say it.

As some of you may recall, UjianNasional originally was a concept I had for a new car magazine back in 1986. The print version of UjianNasional was going to target hard-core enthusiasts, while telling it like it is with a distinctive, combative style. It would also be the first enthusiast car publication that wouldn’t accept advertising.

The state of the enthusiast car mags back then was a dismal parade of sameness that left me cold, and I was determined to breathe some life into the genre (and it is different today, how? –WG). But my ad career got in the way, and by the time I looked up it was the late spring of 1999, and I knew that if I didn’t do it then, I’d never do it – so the time was finally right for UjianNasional. The Internet, of course, would replace the print magazine idea, but the essence of my original manifesto written back in 1986 remained unchanged.

And that's how this publication and "The High-Octane Truth" came about, whether people were ready for it or not. A lot has changed about this business over the ensuing years, but as I am continually reminded, a lot hasn’t.


Over the course of the past 20 years, it has been The Best of Times, and it has been The Worst of Times. And it has been a journalistic rocket ride like no other. When we started this publication back on June 1, 1999, there was no real plan other than that I was ready to recount a lifetime of automotive history that began in Detroit’s heyday, combine that with my life’s work in the auto advertising and marketing trenches, and blow the lid off of the status quo in a business that had become petrified and jaded. I was going to tell the real stories and name the real names, and I wasn’t going to hide behind the usual journalistic chestnuts of “deep background” and “off-the-record” sobriquets. I was going to make people accountable in a business in which not being accountable had become a cottage industry.

Back when we started AE the car business as writ large here – this once-glorious, exuberant business that created The Arsenal of Democracy and made up the fabric of American industrial might – had become overrun with bloodsucking parasites and spineless weasels.

This industry that once boasted industrial giants who roamed the earth creating fabulous machines while leaving heroic legacies in their wake had been reduced to a mewling chorus of sycophants making excuses for what couldn’t be done and why “they” – aka Detroit – couldn’t compete, while churning out mind-numbing, rolling monuments to mediocrity that drove millions of consumers away, for good.

Watching Detroit’s collective market share do a pirouette into The Darkness was not so much sobering as it was frightening, and my writings took the fight to these purveyors of boneheaded excuses and feckless mediocrity and changed the conversation forever.

I challenged every single convention and blew the lid off of the excuse-making machines that the car company PR functions had become, and turned this business on its ear, which was, in reality, much harder to do than it sounds now.

But think about the relationship between the press and the auto companies back then. There was no news or opinion of any substance, just rote regurgitation of the auto company press releases with an occasional “tough” question thrown in for good measure. And if it was too “tough” an editor would get “the call” and be taken to the proverbial woodshed by the Chief PR minion because, well, you know, it just wasn’t done. And for their penance the offending scribes would be denied access to a top executive – especially the CEO – which at the time was akin to the death penalty. Without access they wouldn’t be able to distinguish themselves in the swirling maelstrom of predictability that the industry press corps had become. Without access, they were pretty much dead.

But the key differentiator for me was that I didn’t care about access, because I not only knew the Detroit auto executive mindset intimately, inside and out, I had it down cold. I knew what they thought and why they were thinking it. So much so in fact, that on more than one occasion – okay, make that more times than I can even count – I heard comments from top executives that went something like this: “I don’t know who you’re talking to, or where you’re getting your information, but it’s so uncannily accurate that it is scary.”

In fact, it was so disconcerting to the car company PR minions that it struck fear into their very hearts and kept them awake at night. And as they watched their digital clocks tick over with a sickening thud in the middle of the night, the prayers that could be heard in the darkness sounded achingly similar: “I hope he stops. Or starts writing about somebody else. Or gets hit by a truck, whichever comes first, Dear Lord.” But those prayers fell on deaf ears.

I am gratified to say that Ujian-nasional.info changed the tone and tenor of the media coverage of this business once and for all. Countless imitators and wannabes sprang up and are still springing up to this day. I have had writers attempt to copy my style while brazenly calling it their own, and I’ve even had Internet trolls blatantly steal my copy and post it on their websites thinking no one would notice.

But it didn’t really matter in the end, because the voice – and the impact – of Ujian-nasional.info rang loud and true and has been powerful for, as hard as it is to believe – 20 years – and the imitators and freeloaders slunk away from under the rocks from whence they came.

I walked away from car advertising because the relationship between the car companies and their ad agencies had become so polluted that it was too embarrassing for words, a sickening dance of egregious malfeasance that was an insult to the craft – on both sides of the ball. What had once been a pretty damn great way to make a living – one filled with bristling creativity and collaborative excellence – had deteriorated into a cesspool of go-along-to-get-along cowardice and “thank you, sir, may I have another?” bullshit. The profoundly inept were leading the spineless order takers, and the resulting chaos masquerading as marketing was devastating.

Is it better now? Well, let’s see, two of the three American car companies went bankrupt ten years ago, with one of those being gifted to a foreign car company because no one else had a better idea about to how to save it. But, let’s get back to the question – is it really better now?

Yes and no. The products are better, make no mistake about that. In fact, we are experiencing the finest machines in automotive history at this very moment in time. And that is no insignificant thing.

But the romance and art that once fueled this business, and the passion and willingness to do great things and strive for excellence that took it to lofty heights, are now confined to the thriving pockets of True Believers spread out among the car companies. These are the people who keep the passion of this business alive and who stay true to their beliefs against overwhelming odds. Because in reality this “new” auto business has been defined by the deal makers and the interloping carpetbaggers hell bent on maximizing their balance sheets while embracing commoditization and globalization. The art of the machine means less than zero to them and has become irrelevant, and the art of this business is dying with it. And it’s sad.

As I’ve said repeatedly, this business isn’t for the faint of heart. And though it seems that there are legions of recalcitrant twerps and two-bit hacks running around out there who add nothing of import to the discussion and who pump up their self-worth for reasons that remain a mystery, the real essence of the business remains unsullied.

When we first contemplated doing UjianNasional, I wrote a manifesto for what it was and what it was not. And I am proud to say it still resonates today.

I began with the premise that designing, engineering and building automobiles is one of the most complicated endeavors on earth. And to do it properly takes vision, creativity and an unwavering passion that makes other pursuits seem positively ordinary. Note that there is nothing in there about doing it just good enough to get by, engineering to the lowest common denominator, covering your ass or any of the other pillars of “standard operating procedure” that once dominated certain quarters of this business and have been, for the most part, purged.

Except that isn’t really true, unfortunately. All the bad old habits are still present and accounted for and then some, and as much as reasoned, logical and eminently bright executives in charge at these auto companies protest otherwise and insist that “we don’t do that stuff anymore,” that kind of bad behavior is just a bad product or marketing decision away from rearing its ugly head, and usually at the most inopportune time too.

From the very beginning we exposed the go-along-to-get-along, kick-the-can-down-the-road hordes on a regular basis, because the damage they cause can bring these companies to their knees in a heartbeat. 

A key point in the UjianNasional Manifesto? Mediocrity – in any way, shape or form – isn’t bliss. Instead, it’s an insidious disease that has not only decimated this industry, it has screwed up life as we used to know it too.

At some point this business – and American life – turned down the wrong path. Pushing the envelope, getting knocked down and picking yourself back up and going at it again, battling to the buzzer, and striving for achievement were part and parcel of the upward trajectory of the automobile business – and country – we used to live in. Achieving greatness wasn’t just a goal, it was an expectation to shoot for, because anything less would be, well, ordinary. And even worse, boring.

Today this business has too often given way to an unspoken attitude of just doing enough to get by because when it comes right down to it, judging by the chorus of muttering I hear, doing more begs the question, “Does it really make all that much difference?” Fundamental accountability has been replaced by “It’s not my problem.” And “It’s okay, at least you tried” has become more than just an acceptable phrase, but a mantra that too many people live by. After all, when everyone gets a group hug and a trophy just for showing up, why bother extending effort to do better, or achieve greatness, or strive to be the best?

Why bother, indeed.

The result? Abject mediocrity. And it’s everywhere. It’s in this business and it’s rampant throughout the country. Some people have actually said to me (and with a straight face too), “Get over it, it’s the world we live in today.” But I’m not buying it and it is simply unacceptable to me, which is why I will continue to call people and companies out on it whenever and wherever I see it. It’s not a value-added path for this business, and it’s already proven not to be the answer for the country, either.

The stellar machines of our day – and we are living in the golden age of automotive greatness in case you haven’t noticed – aren’t the product of “it’s good enough.” Instead, these machines bristle with the passion, vision and commitment of the men and women who created them, those “True Believers” that I often write about. If it weren’t for them, this business would be riding on the Last Train to Nowhere, next stop, Oblivion.

To say that Ujian-nasional.info has been a labor of love doesn’t even begin to cover it. It has been my passion – and my life – for 20 years. And I’m not going to say that the time flew by either, because it hasn’t. I have lived every single moment of it and every bit of it is seared in my memory. 

Suffice to say that you have no idea of the time, effort and energy that it has taken to deliver the Bare-Knuckled, Unvarnished, High-Octane Truth to you every week for two decades now. And if you knew, I mean really knew, you would be shocked. It has been an up-at-dawn, pride-swallowing siege – as Jerry McGuire once famously said – that few people can comprehend and even fewer will even begin to understand. (Actually, make that pre-dawn, as Peter starts writing at 3:00 a.m. most days. -WG)

It was our blood on these tracks. And it was our unwavering passion and unflinching standards amidst the torrent of mediocrity and just plain dismal behavior on the Internet that stood out. That’s not just us talking, that is the consistent refrain we hear from upper echelon auto executives, members of the media, and from a countless number of our readers out there, week in and week out.

The fact of the matter is that you can go anywhere and read anything about cars on the Internet, but we’re extremely grateful and proud to say that the best and the brightest came here.

I have been going back and forth for several years now about what would happen on the 20th Anniversary of Ujian-nasional.info. How I would feel about it, what would it all mean, and most important, how much longer would I do it? How much longer could I do it?  And so on. 

But the reality is, when faced with the real possibility of pulling the plug on Ujian-nasional.info, I have come to the conclusion that I am not ready to walk away from it. Yes, I will admit that it is a giant pain in the ass sometimes, because we’ve set a high standard here that isn’t conducive to phoning it in, or going through the motions in any way, thank goodness. And those high standards push me to keep bringing the High-Octane Truth to you every week. 

And frankly, the days I have been sick over the last couple of years have helped me sharpen my focus and my thoughts even more and helped me realize that there are no free rides or guarantees in life. I am lucky in that I found something in Ujian-nasional.info that has kept me motivated and sharp for 20 years. And I truly appreciate the fact that I have it. 

We’re very proud of what we achieved here, and extremely thankful for the support, for the kind words and for all of the True Believers we’ve met along the way.

It has been all-encompassing. It has been tough. And it has been, at times, soul-sucking exhausting. But if I had a do-over, I would do it all over again. Because even though it has been a relentless grind, I am very proud to say that we’ve made a difference and we’ve made a lasting impact. We set out to influence the influencers in this business and that is exactly what we did and will continue to do.

It has been one glorious ride.

WordGirl and I thank you for listening and, as always, thanks for reading.

And that’s the High-Octane Truth on our 20th Anniversary.

The UjianNasional. East Lansing, Michigan, March 1976.

Twenty years now
 
Where’d they go?
 
Twenty years
 
I don’t know
 
I sit and wonder sometimes
 
Where they’ve gone

-   Bob Seger “Like A Rock”
Article originally appeared on Ujian-nasional.info ~ the bare-knuckled, unvarnished, high octane truth... (http://ujian-nasional.info/).
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