Jack Pitney's last press conference was in New York's BMW of Manhattan a couple of weeks ago. He was there to announce a sponsorship deal with the U.S. Olympic Committee. Meeting him again at the event reminded this reporter of how genuinely affable he was.
And -- unusual for a marketer at a company with a stolid adherence to its core identity -- Pitney had a casual sense of humor and a demeanor that one could have mistaken for insouciance. That perspective was, perhaps, reflected in the company's "Joy" campaign -- perhaps the first real departure from the technology-and-engineering focus of BMW's "The Ultimate Driving Machine" platform.
Pitney, 47, BMW's VP of marketing for the eponymous brand for the past five years, died on Thursday in an accident on his upstate New York farm. The Greene County sheriff's department says that on Thursday afternoon Pitney was on his tractor at his farm in Durham, trying to pull a tree stump from the ground when the tractor flipped. The sheriff's department arrived at 12:40 p.m., and Pitney was pronounced dead at the scene.
Pitney was about to be shifted from the top marketing spot at BMW in the U.S. to head of the automaker's Eastern region. Pitney joined BMW in the mid-1990s, first as a public relations executive, but in 2001 was shifted into a trial-by-fire marketing position as general manager of the nascent Mini brand in the U.S.
'Mini experience was not replicable'
Kerri Martin, SVP and business director for the Gallo wine and spirits account at BBDO West, tells Marketing Daily that her experience as Mini marketing communications manager under Pitney was one she sought but never found again in the auto business.
"The Mini experience was not replicable," she says. "I've gotten wiser, but little did I know then how special that was. Taking a step back and looking at it -- at all the creative we produced over the years with that brand -- it's remarkable. That was something. I smile because I feel it's as fresh now as it was then."
She says Pitney had everything to do with it. "As my boss, he was one of a handful of executives involved in the brand who would meet on a weekly basis to pull together the business plan around launching Mini in the U.S. -- before it was officially approved. We would not have been able to do all the things we did without Jack's support.
"We broke the rules of the category and he had to be a fearless leader in that regard; he had a huge appetite for breaking convention. One thing about Jack is he loved the auto business, and I think successful people -- truly successful -- find a way to marry passion with career and he did that."
Martin seems to have taken that philosophy to heart. While between jobs in the auto business (most recently she was with San Francisco-based electric-car startup Coda), she went to culinary school in Napa and became a certified sommelier.
"I really love what I'm doing now, but that Mini experience was once in a lifetime, and Jack set the stage. He was hungry for great creative, for groundbreaking innovative ideas. Jack and I made a really good pair because he was a hardcore auto enthusiast and I came in never having launched or been in autos [Martin had come to Mini from Harley-Davidson] so I brought intelligent naiveté to the table. The whole team was great."
After that brand's remarkable launch, which also elevated the star of its agency Crispin Porter & Bogusky, Pitney became head of marketing for the BMW brand in 2005, trading places with Jim McDowell.
The automaker's head of corporate communications, Tom Kowaleski, says that while the company has not chosen an interim replacement for Pitney, "this [personnel] action has been in the plan for some time and will not change since Jack was already going to vacate the position on Monday of next week officially."
BMW of North America President Jim O'Donnell said of Pitney in a release on Friday: "He was not just a creative powerhouse but a genuinely nice man." He continues: "Jack had been in the office earlier this week and I know how excited he was, looking forward to his new role heading BMW Group's Eastern Region here in the U.S. Jack brought excitement and electricity to his work. And yes, he inspired those around him because of his infectious enthusiasm for BMW and his never-failing good humor. He leaves a great legacy here at BMW Group."
Added O'Donnell: "His years in Communications prepared him for his groundbreaking role launching Mini with a style we had never seen before. As head of BMW Marketing, Jack personified the brand and the values that motivate us in this company. Being a true creative soul, Jack couldn't wait for the next challenge and I, personally, was looking forward to seeing the innovations he would bring to his new role in Sales."
Adds an auto marketing executive who knew Pitney in his PR days: "This business isn't for the faint of heart. Jack had grace ... he was certainly brave [taking on] Mini."
Pitney is survived by his wife and five children.