Melissa Cartagena, Head of Digital Advertising, AutoNation

February 15, 2023
ASOTU was on the ground during the 2023 NADA Show and caught up with Melissa Cartagena.
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Melissa Cartagena is the Head of Digital Advertising at AutoNation.

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Kyle Mountsier: 0:00This is in the dirt with ASOTU. We are sitting here at the booth with Melissa Cartagena, head of Head of Digital Advertising AutoNation. Thanks for hanging out with us.Melissa Cartagena: 0:12

Absolutely. You guys have the life of the party. So like, How can I miss it?

Kyle Mountsier: 0:16

Thanks for that. Nobody can see your sparkly shoes, right? Well, you know, we have never gotten to sat down with you. And we don't get to talk to AutoNation a lot. So I've got a lot of really deep questions. I'm just kidding. So explain to me, because you've been in charge of the digital ecosystem and AutoNation for a little while now. But go back, like where does your. Where does your digital extra

Melissa Cartagena: 0:47

Where did my journey start? You're gonna date me, I'm gonna that's gonna. I'm a bit of a digital dinosaur. Like I've been in the space for almost 20 years long time. I started at a small agency in Boca Raton. And I remember the day I walked in, I had a customer service background, I'm going to be our account manager. I'm like, fantastic. And then I sat down with someone and he said, Do you know anything about HTML? I said, No. Do you know what flash is? Like?

Unknown: 1:16

Yeah. Me handed me a very thick book. And he dropped it on the table. And he was like, I didn't interview you, you're gonna have to learn on your own. And three weeks later, or maybe four weeks later, this the CEO came to me and said, you know, you're not doing very well, I don't know what's happening. I'm like, nobody's helping me. I'm not getting trained. And then I walked out. And I talked to the gentleman that dropped the book. And I said, From now on, you are going to answer my questions, you will drop that phone, if I have a question, and it will happen. And then we're gonna work together like a team. And he's been my friend ever since

Kyle Mountsier: 1:48

really? Very cool. So it was it. So how did you then transition to the auto side?

Melissa Cartagena: 1:54

I've been in digital space for a long time, I've worked in telecommunications. I've worked in CPG industry. I've worked in several different companies and E comm. And then I, you know, I got this recruiter called me one day and said, we have an opportunity at AutoNation. And I was like, well, that's interesting. We want you to come in and just sort of, you know, stand up our digital products, they weren't doing any display advertising at the time, they didn't even know how to dip their toe in and want you to build around What year was this? This was 2014. Okay. So I came in. And that's what I started, I started as a display program. For them, it was very, very interesting program, because it's a complex environment, as you know, in the auto industry, and then the complexity that we had across multiple stores, and multiple brands. And it's how do you get all of that working in a capacity where you can build for the masses and not for the individual store, but still satisfy the need. And you have all the other nuances in the auto industry. And that's what we did, we built it and we had a creative element and a dynamic element associated to it. And then it just sort of grew from there. And that they stayed with the company, my role grew with the company, eventually overseeing all of the digital and performance advertising for the organization and working with multiple agencies over the years and trying to consolidate and consolidate as much as we can. Because at AutoNation, much not much like any of the other dealing groups out there. We are a very centralized organization. We support we love all of our stores the same all of our children, we love them all. But we do support it at at a, you know, corporate level from a centralized perspective. And, and that's worked for us. Although, you know, I'm sure some of our stores would say they might want to do it. But we really do try to we do our best to support all based everything on a performance level that you know, is is going to benefit the organization overall. I mean, that's, you know, that's really our goal. So it's been it's been an interesting path over the years just working with multiple agencies and meeting people throughout the industry and just trying to make it work for us. We've had some really good team members across the board had the best team before. So I, I left in 2020. And I went into residential real estate or very large residential real estate company and I stayed with him for two and a half years and AutoNation called one of my college

Kyle Mountsier: 4:07

Oh, this is a comeback story. Yeah, come back. And I couldn't stay away. Yeah,

Melissa Cartagena: 4:12

I loved automotive. I really, I was torn when I actually left and still stayed in touch with so many people while I was gone. And it was funny, isn't it, even other industries, they always compared everything to automotive use, like it's just just keeps coming up. I feel like I need to go back. And one of my colleagues got promoted, and she's like, Melissa, I need your help. We're doing some other work work that I wanted to do four years ago. I'm like, Oh, I'm super jealous that you're doing this now. So she's like, I just, you know, we want you to come back. And let me ask you this that happened.

Kyle Mountsier: 4:41

So you talked about coming from a non auto background coming into automotive going back in the real estate coming back? What are the similarities and from your perspective, moving into the future of automotive advertising? What similarities come from the other worlds like real estate or CPG, how should automotive move to be more

Melissa Cartagena: 5:03

You know something? It's funny because effective? every time anytime I've ever gone from one industry to another or one vertical, I will call it to another. They've all said the same thing. Nobody could get it right with data, like we just will everybody will. Correct? Yeah, it's the consolidation of it. How do you action on it? Like, that's, that's a problem for everybody. It's not just a problem for auto, it's a problem for everyone. CPG is especially hard, because they're usually like, they're really like a b2b business. You know, like, whatever product they're trying to sell. They want it on the end cap of the target, or they want it on an end cap of Walmart. And that's like, that's not a b2c model. And they're trying to consolidate it, how do they get it when targets the one that's, you know, selling the product versus the actual company? Like sunbeam owns it or what have you, right? So everybody is trying to understand how to gather their data, how to consolidate how to action on it, how to automate it, how to have more of like, just that automation associated to it. And that's a big topic for everybody. You know, CDP's have been like the hot like, thing. That's possible. It's been around for years. We were talking about that in AutoNation five years ago, before I left in

Kyle Mountsier: 6:17

automotive, that's yeah. Why? Why were you talking about it, then. And it's only coming up to be a buzzword now, or broader,

Melissa Cartagena: 6:24

you know, awareness of it. I don't know, if it's adoption, people being afraid of like, what's to come and how the direction that it's moving? It's more of an automated fashion, what you do, you can't really, there's a control factor, right? You can't if you have automation, you feel like you lose control. And people are afraid of automation. And don't be afraid of automation. I spoke at a conference when I was in residential real estate a couple years ago. And I said the same thing like you're afraid of you're afraid of automation. Don't be afraid of auto let the bots do the work monitor it. But let let it happen.

Kyle Mountsier: 6:56

Right, yeah. The other

Melissa Cartagena: 6:58

thing, that whole, what percentage of your time are you spending on strategy versus activation? And that's, that's a real thing. So it's, it's just something you have to really consider. So I we are really desperately trying to figure out how to automate things because we have so many stores. Yeah. And when you have that level of

Kyle Mountsier: 7:16

project right now, for you all,

Melissa Cartagena: 7:19

everything we do we do at scale. Yeah, can't do it. Like and people come to us all the time. Like, I can do this for you, like video, for example, artists thing for us. We're not doing it for one individual store. I have 300, you know, 275 plus stores? How do you make an authentic video for each one of those individually and scale that? It's hard? It's hard. So it's, it's something that we have to like, we just have to figure out but a lot of these companies come to us sometimes like we could do it for you. And then they get under the hood, no pun intended. And they're like, oh, that's going well, yeah, we told you. We weren't lying. Yeah. But it was hard. Yeah. And then the layout, we got to figure that out. So that's, that's always an interesting conversation with anybody. So I take those conversations, you know, seriously, but with a grain of salt in a way because we have to make sure that we're presenting ourselves, right. When we do talk with our vendors. There's a lot of work to be done.

Kyle Mountsier: 8:13

It's hard. And I think that's that's the key is like there's a lot of work to be done. And it's hard. If you're a single point, if you got 10 stores, you got 300 stores to do. And it is hard, like someone write that down. I think that's the title.

Melissa Cartagena: 8:32

Complexity is the key, right? Yeah. I was always told it's, it's it's complicated, Melissa, it's complicated. I didn't understand until I really got in and dug in. I was like, Oh, you're right. It actually is complicated. So that was like the buzzword that year. I started at AutoNation.

Kyle Mountsier: 8:49

Listen, thanks so much for hanging out with us just a little bit peeling behind the curtain of your experience and the experience right now. Thank you for listening to in the dirt with

Melissa Cartagena: 8:56

Thank you for having me. ASOTU. We love the automotive industry and the people who make it run day in and day out. We would love to connect with you more through our daily dose of fun, a free email that you can sign up for at That's a s o t We put our heart and soul into it every day. Thanks again for listening. Join us next time for more Conversations In the Dirt with ASOTU.

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