Your Career in a Pontiac Aztek

In 2001, Pontiac introduced the Pontiac Aztek – an SUV crossover with a built-in tent that would later become one of Time‘s 50 Worst Cars of All Time. The article claims, “This car could not have been more instantly hated if it had a Swastika tattoo on its forehead.”

It continues, “The Aztek design had been fiddled with, fussed over, cost-shaved and otherwise compromised until the tough, cool-looking concept had been reduced to a bulky, plastic-clad mess. A classic case of losing the plot…The shame is, under all that ugliness, there was a useful competent crossover.”

Sound familiar?

But the fact that the original Aztek design was pecked to death by ducks isn’t the only parallel to advertising. The pits the Aztek designers fell into are still out there.

Danger 1: Accepting too many compromises

Did the Aztek’s designers fight to keep their original idea? My guess was they were so happy to actually be producing something they justified a few compromises. David Droga has said, “It’s a weird thing – sometimes you start out with something that you love, but when it does get compromised along the way, you’re so in love with it you’re blinded to how much it’s been compromised, and you just want to see it through. You have to have the courage as an agency to say, we understand your issues and we’ll take this off the table and come back with something new.”

Danger 2: Believing creativity is gravy
The fact that “under all that ugliness, there was a useful competent crossover” makes me think that Pontiac justified messing with the design because it was still a crossover and fit the parameters of what Pontiac wanted to launch. That’s like saying, “It answers the brief, so it must be a great ad.” A great campaign does more than give the client what they asked for in the briefing meeting. Great design, great art direction, great writing aren’t just artsy-fartsy bells and whistles.

Danger 3: Staying in the wrong culture
I may be going out on a limb, but I don’t think Pontiac had a culture that championed truly great, innovative ideas. Toyota? Sure. Honda? You bet. But Pontiac? And yet, they must have had some talented and ambitious designers there. Ron Mather has said, “You are more likely to come up with a great idea in a great agency than in a mediocre agency. I think it’s the atmosphere. Being around very good people in an environment that promotes great creative thinking.”

And if you realize you’re working for a Pontiac-style ad agency, have the courage to follow Ernie Schenck’s advice: “If things are working out and you’re getting your needs met, and you know what those are at this point, then great. If not, though, don’t wait to jump ship. Trust me on this inertia thing. The longer people stay in one place the harder it is for them to leave.”

Danger 4: Lowering the bar
Despite all the time and money Pontiac put into developing the Aztek, they failed to realize that people were going to hate it. My guess is they were talking to themselves. Groupthink and high standards rarely co-exist. If you lower the bar of your own creative integrity because you think it will help you get something produced, make your CD happy, enter an award show, or simply because it’s your duty and you need to be a good solider, watch out. There will be times in your career when, for various reasons, you will be required to deliver work that is below your standards. Just don’t make them too frequent. And never kid yourself that meeting such low expectations is an accomplishment to celebrate.