Thomas in Driver’s Seat With Initiative

Aug 20, 2008  •  Post A Comment

So far this year, Deborah Thomas has a new job and a new car.
Ms. Thomas, who joined Initiative as senior VP on the Hyundai Motors of America account in May, now is getting around California in a Hyundai Santa Fe. Previously, when she was media manager for Nissan North America in Nashville, she drove an Infiniti.
Ms. Thomas has spent the bulk of her career in the car business, and what she drives is important to her.
“I get in [the Santa Fe] every day and say, ‘This was a good decision,’” Ms. Thomas said. “Every time I take someone for a ride in it, they’re very pleasantly surprised that it’s a Hyundai.”
Hyundai is in the process of remaking its image from that of a company that manufactures cheap cars, to one that makes quality vehicles. Ms. Thomas said her background with Nissan’s luxury Infiniti division should prove valuable in that endeavor.
“I think that’s part of why Initiative asked me to come down and play with them,” she said.
“Her decision to be part of the Hyundai marketing experience is just another example of the automotive industry’s growing realization that the Hyundai brand is a formidable and ascendant player in the marketplace, a brand with tremendous upside and opportunity,” said Fred Sattler, executive VP at Initiative.
A key part of Hyundai’s luxury push is the launch of the Genesis.
Since joining Infiniti, Ms. Thomas has been going over the media plans for the new model, including the upfront television buys the agency made to support the launch.
The Genesis TV plan includes product integrations in shows including Fox’s “24,” USA Network’s “Monk” and TNT’s new series “Leverage.”
“We also did a lot of great stuff in print,” she added.
The timing of Ms. Thomas’ move to the West Coast and the agency world couldn’t have been better.
A call came out of the blue from a headhunter, and Ms. Thomas already had planned to visit a friend on the West Coast. She interviewed with Initiative during that trip.
As it turned out, she already had her house up for sale. “I knew the market was slow. There was no reason for me and a cat to be living in 3,600 square feet,” she said. “Whether I was coming back here, or whatever, I was getting rid of that big house.”
Within an hour of her meeting with Initiative executives, she received an offer on her house. The sale closed on her last day at Nissan.
“I was lucky,” she said.
Ms. Thomas was born in Gettysburg, Pa., while her father, a Lutheran minister, was in a seminary there. As a child she moved around a lot as her father changed churches, but she grew up mostly in California, attending high school in Fresno.
She went to Brooks College, a fashion design school in Long Beach, Calif., but didn’t last even a semester there.
“I ran away and got married,” she said.
She moved to southern Michigan for four years. She returned to Fresno, where the marriage ended, for a couple of years, then went to Long Beach State and earned a business degree with an emphasis in marketing.
She’d had some jobs on the fringes of the car business, renting cars for Budget and repossessing them for GMAC. After college, she went to work at Bridgestone Tire.
One day, she was called into a vice president’s office at the company.
“I’m wet behind the ears and he says, ‘You have a college degree. We need to do an agency review. Go handle it,’” she recalled. “I walked out going, ‘What the hell is an agency review?’”
She hired Campbell-Ewald, whose executives passed her resume along to some people they knew at Mitsubishi, where she ended up working for 15 years.
She really learned the ins and outs of the auto business at Mitsubishi, working under executives who took a personal interest in her and her career.
“I did everything. I did the sign program, I did the point-of-sale stuff, I did all the in-dealership furniture, I did Internet brochures, I did creative and media. I even did all the regional stuff,” she said. “It was 15 years of good experience.”
She left the auto industry briefly to become vice president of global marketing for a company that prints out-of-home advertisements.
Then she took the job at Nissan. “I couldn’t wait to get back,” she said.
She joined Nissan in its purchasing department, working as the liaison between marketing and purchasing. She got senior-level exposure in that job, but “I couldn’t wait to get back into marketing, and that was when the Infiniti media position opened up. So I went to Tennessee.”
Ms. Thomas has a son in California who just graduated from architecture school. He’s married and expecting a baby.
Since returning to California, Ms. Thomas has taken up her golf clubs again.
“In Tennessee, it’s either too damn hot or too damn humid. I’m a fair-weather golfer,” she said.
She also enjoys cooking and entertaining.
Who Knew: Ms. Thomas says her first car was a Volkswagen bug “that my father traded his lawnmower for. I remember when I went to college and we would be studying late at night and we’d get hungry and we’d get into my car and three of them would have to push it and I would pop the clutch to get it going,” she said.


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