The untold things I remember about Lee Iacocca

Some lesser-known stories about interactions with the legendary auto executive.

Photo credit: Getty images
Photo credit: Getty images

Over the next few days, you’ll read dozens upon dozens of stories about Lee Iacocca’s life, his highest highs and lowest lows. I have already read a dozen this morning, and the bottom line of all is that he was and will remain a legend among legends.

Back in the mid-1980s, I remember seeing a poll that found that among a worldwide audience, Iacocca was recognized the third-most behind President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II. I want to share some stories that few know about him on his interactions with me and some of my colleagues.

One of the most fun times was when executive Mike Morrison, now General Motors comms head Tony Cervone and I wrote Lee’s remarks for the Friars Club Roast of Frank Sinatra’s wife. As some may be aware, the Friar’s Roast in New York City is a strictly R-rated event, but we kept it clean. The fact that a CEO was part of a Friar’s Roast showed us just how legendary a CEO had become. Oh, and he and Sinatra were buddies.

My most personal interactions with Iacocca came in the summer of 1998 and then in the summer of 2005. In 1998, the head of Nissan sales, Mike Seergy, asked me if I could get Iacocca to do ads for the Japanese car company. Whoa! Lee, of course, was persona non grata at Chrysler after the Kerkorian debacle and there was a chance.

I arranged a meeting with Lee, former Reagan communications leader Michael Deaver, Seergy and myself at the Peninsula Hotel. Iacocca said to me seconds into us sitting down for breakfast, "Jason, are you crazy?" Well, that was inconsequential. We talked for an hour and Iacocca seemed interested. We created storyboards of potential ads and later showed them to Lee, but soon the deal was off as Iacocca’s daughters weighed-in against it. Looking back, his kids were right.

But I wasn’t done. In the summer of 2005, GM introduced one of the most brilliant marketing scams in the history of the auto industry: employee pricing for regular customers. (It was a scam because on many vehicles, the employee price was higher than the current price of the vehicles due to huge rebates). GM sales soared, and Ford and my Chrysler were caught holding our, um, er, cars on the lot. My boss, CEO Dieter Zetsche, demanded we come up with a program to match but was afraid it would look like a copy of GM, so we needed some unique marketing.

Our ad agency, BBDO, went to work, and within a couple of days had an idea of using Zetsche, the German engineer and CEO, as the pitchman. We, BBDO leaders, I, sales and marketing chief Joe Eberhardt and Zetsche, met in Dieter’s conference room to go over storyboards of potential ads. But five minutes into the meeting, Zetsche called a timeout and asked Eberhardt and me to join him in his office. There he asked if we thought it was a good idea for him to do the ads if we knew Zetsche would be named chairman of DaimlerChrysler in 25 days. "No way" was the answer.

We reconvened with BBDO without Zetsche and told them we needed a new direction and that Eberhardt and I would come up with some suggestions. Eberhardt and I made a beeline for the basement of headquarters and went into the executive garage, in tow with the necessary deep-thinking implements, Marlboro Lights. "What do we do?" Joe asked. I don’t know if this idea came out of my head or regions further south. "We get the ultimate pitchman," I said.

"Who?"

"Lee Iacocca," I said.

"Holy shit," Joe responded and then added, "Do you think we can get him?"

"Maybe," I said, "But we need to give all the money to his charity for diabetes." (Diabetes had killed Lee’s first wife and the love of his life, Mary, and he had made it his life’s mission to find a cure).

We shared the suggestion with Zetsche and his initial response was "holy shit." Zetsche told us to go forward knowing that his boss, DaimlerChrysler chairman Juergen Schrempf, would probably kick his butt for doing this, considering how openly critical -- hell, nasty -- Iacocca had been of the supposed "merger of equals" between Daimler and Chrysler seven years earlier.

Now, how to get Iacocca on-board? I went down to the marketing department and found Vicki Carlini. Her late father, Hank, had been Lee’s go-to guy for almost everything. "I need your help, Vicki," I said. "Name it," was her response. "I need you to set up a call with me and Lido. We want to bring him back to do ads for us." Carlini was dumbstruck, but within an hour, I was on the phone with Iacocca with Vicki joining us.

"What the hell are you trying to get me into now, Jason?" Lee blurted out.

Gulp.

I laid out what we wanted to do: a series of TV commercials starring him announcing employee pricing. We would initially give $1.5 million for his diabetes research and then one dollar for every car we sold during the program.

"What the hell does Schrempf think about this?" he asked.

"Let me worry about that," I said cockily. That would be my boss Dieter’s responsibility, after all.

After a week of negotiations and sharing storyboards with Lido, the deal was done and we immediately began shooting. The first ad was OK, featuring Lee with Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander in a complete rip off of the TV show’s episodes featuring the George Steinbrenner character, but OK was more than good enough. Why? We had cut through the clutter, people all over the country and the world were talking about the ads with Iacocca, and the media was giving us millions and millions of dollars in free press.

The second ad featured Iacocca on a beach in North Carolina with his "granddaughter." Unfortunately, despite being summer, a cold snap had hit the Carolina coast. My secretary came into my office, "Mr. Iacocca is on the line and he sounds pissed."

"Hello."

"Goddammit, Jason," he shouted into the phone, "I’m 80 years old and I’m freezing my ass off out here."

"Um, er, ah," I said as the wheels turned in my head. "Well, thanks for what you are doing. The ads are really working. "Hey, gotta go."

The final ad was killer, just plain killer. It featured Lee playing golf with Snoop Dogg. Yeah, that Snoop Dogg. Each star of the commercial had their own trailer on site at the golf course. Lee’s said, "Mr. Iacocca," and Snoop’s was labelled "Mr. Dogg." Iacocca later recalled there were some weird smells coming out of Snoop’s trailer.

But that wasn’t the classic story. At one point of the commercial shoot, Lee and Snoop were sitting in a golf cart during a break in the filming, not knowing their microphones were still live. Here is what was recorded.

"You know, Calvin, (Lee refused to call Snoop anything other than his real first name), my grandchildren are really excited that I am doing this commercial with you."

Snoop responded, "Well, Mr. Iacocca, my grandmother is really excited that I am doing this commercial with you."

Lee Anthony Iacocca – legend, Chrysler savior, philanthropist, loving husband and father -- and Snoop Dogg’s brother from another mother.

Rest in peace, my dear friend. If you can find a better heaven than the one you are in, buy it!

Jason Vines is an independent communications consultant who has worked at Nissan, Ford, Chrysler and FleishmanHillard.

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