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What Ford’s CEO Thinks About Shiny New Things

January 6, 2016, 4:04 PM UTC

One comes to CES, the vast trade show in Las Vegas that peddles technology gadgets, to learn about shiny, new stuff.

My unexpected epiphany from an interview Tuesday night with the CEO of Ford and a panel of top corporate marketers was the importance of old stuff. Innovation is great and all, but it’s easy to forget that existing products have stubbornly persistent value too—sometimes greater value than the new things.

I interviewed Mark Fields, the CEO of Ford (F), who had come to CES to talk about some of the car company’s experiments using new technology. These include self-driving cars, systems to connect home-electronics to cars, and drones. Yet at a Fortune dinner attended by more than 100 people whose planes didn’t get cancelled trying to travel to rain-soaked Las Vegas, Fields made an impassioned plea for the importance of Ford’s core business.

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Ford spends more than $5 billion on capital expenditures each year. Almost all of that goes into making cars and trucks. A tiny amount—Fields wouldn’t give a number or a percentage—goes to the new stuff. He also said it’s fine by him if Ford isn’t the first to commercialize a fully autonomous car. Having a good, safe, profitable self-driving car is better than being first, he said.


Following the Fields interview, Fortune’s Andrew Nusca moderated a panel of top marketers from Hyatt (H) , the NBA, and Target (TGT) . An audience member asked why, after all these years, marketers still send him so much paper he doesn’t want. Jeff Jones, chief marketing officer of Target, responded that for all the hoopla over digital marketing—and he’s a fan of it—old-fashioned techniques like coupons, Sunday inserts, and catalogs still deliver great value to marketers. Consumers, it turns out, like them.

WATCH: Why Ford has a presence in Silicon Valley.

Cars driven by robots and digital-first media strategies undoubtedly are the future. That doesn’t mean there’s no value in present technologies. The thrill of pressing the pedal to the metal and the joy of rustling a newspaper between your fingers persists, especially outside the urban oases where the technology elites live. The future is coming for sure, but not necessarily immediately.