INSIGHT: Rod Campbell – mover, shaker, maverick

Image courtesy of Pete Lyons

INSIGHT: Rod Campbell – mover, shaker, maverick


INSIGHT: Rod Campbell – mover, shaker, maverick


How do you write about a man who gave you a chance that changed your life, and literally changed your career? Better yet, a man who changed the lives and careers of hundreds of others?

That was what I first thought when my friend and colleague Paul Pfanner asked me to pen something about Rod Campbell, looking at his days at Campbell & Co., now Campbell Marketing & Communications.

For background, I am the longest-tenured employee at Campbell at almost 36 years, so I have spent more than twice as much time at the agency than Rod himself did. I was hired by Rod in 1984, mentored by him, promoted by him, yelled at by him, prodded by him, forgiven by him, and thanked by him.

When I joined the company we were a small troupe (my employee number is 009), and my first office was in a converted classroom at Dearborn Edison School, owned at that time by Ford. My first desk was a board on a radiator, and most desks faced each other in the small classroom. Yes, there was a blackboard on one wall.

It was home for a month or so until we moved into a real office elsewhere in Dearborn, Mich., but looking back, it seemed the perfect place for this entrepreneur named Rod to really get his new company rolling – high energy, a little chaotic, noisy, and fun.

In those early days, we were doing PR and dealer promotions for Ford’s revived racing program in North America, which consisted of sports car racing, drag racing and NASCAR. Rod was a driving force within the walls of Ford, urging a whole new generation of marketing and PR people to consider using racing to help tell the Ford story, and help sell cars and trucks.

He worked side-by-side with Michael Kranefuss, the director of Ford SVO, selling the opportunities racing could bring to Ford in helping sell cars like Mustang and Thunderbird, and new technology from Ford Aerospace and Ford Electronics. Internal champions like David Scott and John Roberts on the PR side, and Ross Roberts and Bob Rewey on the marketing side, were willing to listen to Rod, and put into action a lot of his ideas that he had formulated in his years in the motorsport business before the agency. Edsel Ford II was an early champion as well, when he was doing marketing at Ford Division, and then he led Lincoln-Mercury into sports cars with Capris and Merkur XR4tis.

Campbell (right) worked in close step with Ford SVO director Michael Kranefuss (center). Jack Roush is on the left. Image courtesy of Pete Lyons.

It was an exciting time to be involved with the company. We were slowing growing, adding office space, and Rod was the both the eternal optimist and the ultimate “rain-maker.” We used to laugh whenever he would return from meetings at Ford. More than once, he would come back, call us all together and say, “I was talking to Tom So-and-So, and he said he needed someone to do X and X and X. I told him we could do that for him. So, now we have to figure out… how are we going to do that?”

And the funny thing is, we figured it out. Like every great businessman, Rod never saw an opportunity he didn’t want to take on. He never wanted to turn down business, no matter what it was, because he had this vision that Campbell would always become bigger than just racing.

He had the vision to help lead and organize this little skunkworks that eventually became Ford SVT. He helped Ford and Campbell become a leader in Crash Parts advocacy. He saw opportunities in women’s marketing with people like Lyn St. James, and performance marketing with guys like Jackie Stewart and Bob Bondurant.

He helped lead Ford back into F1 and IndyCar. He personally took Ford executives to races in those series, as well as NASCAR, IMSA, SCCA Trans-Am, NHRA and even off-road racing. For those of us who worked for him, it was our chance to be at his side, learning the craft, getting face time with the leaders of Ford and the racing industry and understanding their concerns.

Walking a pit lane with Rod Campbell was like a “Who’s Who” in racing reunion. Hey, there’s Mario. Hey, Bobby Rahal! Pat Patrick and Mo Nunn right over there. And on and on and on.

Those Ford executives trusted him without question. I can recall once being at Sears Point for a sports car race with Rod and Red Poling, who then was the CEO of Ford. Rod asked me to stand with Red as he rushed off to take care of something and the track president came up and asked Red to go with him to the start line. Red, in a line I will never forget, told him: ”I don’t go anywhere at a race track unless Rod Campbell tells me that’s where I should go.” Yow.

Campbell (right) went from being a giddy fan of icons like Stirling Moss (left) to working closely with them on an array of motorsport marketing programs. Image courtesy of Pete Lyons

As a leader, Rod was very hands-on in the business. He roamed the halls of the company, popping into offices to talk ideas and understand what was going on. Some of my favorite memories are sitting in his office, hearing stories about things he had done in the past, and brainstorming things we could do in the year ahead.

Did he drive us crazy at times? Absolutely. He was a walking, talking idea-generator and we loved him for it. He always thought anything could be done. But he also had his long-time partner Jim Kaser (of SCCA Trans-Am fame) who would remind him of the cost implications of some of those ideas.

Employees were his extended family. He introduced one female employee to executives at the Monterey Historics, but not before exclaiming… “Did you know Cheryl is going to have a baby? How exciting!” Exciting indeed.

As we got bigger, and more faces populated the office, there were more “hey, young man!” or “young lady!” until he could get up to speed on their names, but he truly loved the energy that all these new employees brought to the mix.

And many of his us remember fondly the office wedding toast he would do before an employee was married: “Kevin, I hope you and Kathy are as happy in your marriage as Sandra is in ours.” Every time. And every time we all laughed. It was Rod at his best.

Over the years, hundreds of employees rolled through the door, and later left to do great things in the industry. They started their own agencies, or rose to the top of car company PR departments, or became track presidents, or worked for the sanctioning bodies.

But for many of these “Friends of Rod Campbell,” or FORC as they used to joke, their days at Campbell were among the best of their professional life. It has always been a place where ideas are welcome, where creativity is cherished, where being an entrepreneur like Rod is part of the culture.

Rod sold his interest in the company in 1999, but he still had a passion for the people and the company that bore his name. I often got notes and calls from him asking how things were, filled with ideas of his next great project. My final call to him was very hard for me, but he remained classic Rod – grateful, kind, and generous in praise. He didn’t tell me how proud he was of me as an employee. He told me he was proud of the father I had become and that my public faith had inspired him. Damn. “Family first” to the end.

One final story about my friend. When Rod hired me, he took me out of the newspapers to come write and edit a Ford enthusiast magazine. I wrote and laid out, and then mailed out the 1984 season-ending edition. Two weeks later, the client called and said they were killing the magazine.

I thought I had made the worst career decision of my life coming to work at Campbell. Rod pulled me aside and calmly told me: “Look, I took you out of the newspaper business. Give me time. We’ll figure it out.”

Almost 36 years later, as one of the five owners of Campbell Marketing & Communications, now in our 38th year with more than 100 employees, I can safely say he was right.

We figured it out. He always figured it out. And I will always be grateful to him for that.