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GM Ends Stormy Tenure of CMO Ewanick in Wake of Manchester United Deal

Posted by Dale Buss on July 30, 2012 12:13 PM

Suddenly, Joel Ewanick is done knocking over all of the furniture in General Motors' marketing world — because he's gone. The company's strong-headed global CMO proved to be only a shooting star after GM ousted Ewanick (technically, he resigned, as GM tersely stated) over the weekend following a drama-filled two-year stint.

GM surprised Detroit, Madison Avenue and Wall Street by announcing on Sunday that Ewanick had "failed to meet expectations the company has for its employees" and elected to resign. Outlets including Ad Age and the Wall Street Journal reported that the trigger for Ewanick's sacking was that he failed to properly vet the financial details of Chevy's five-year deal with the iconic Manchester United soccer franchise, which was announced six weeks ago in a high-profile partnership that encompassed China, an international commitment to football and, somehow, Sting.

Today, Man United and Chevy detailed the jersey branding part of the deal, with GM's North American VP Alan Batey quoted instead of Ewanick. Ewanick has shed little additional light on what led to his abrupt exit, although he did tweet that it "has been a privilege & honor to work with the GM Team," and then tweeted the link to the Wall Street Journal report on his exit.

Marketing blogger Stuart Smith opined that Madison Avenue's dreaded "make goods" may have played a role, as "some financial liabilty is likely involved should GM fail to deliver on its side of the bargain; this seems to be what Ewanick 'forgot' to disclose to his superiors." 

As far as GM's board and CEO, Dan Akerson, were concerned, Ewanick fell to earth because he failed to perform well enough often enough, and broadly enough, in the high-wire act that his tenure became.

Akerson recently told WSJ that Ewanick, who also recently engineered a showdown with Facebook and pulled out of the 2013 Super Bowl, presumably in order to stretch his marketing budget to accommodate the soccer platform, “He’s full of energy and vim and vigor and comes across as a glass breaker. But that is too simplistic. He is willing to challenge the status quo of the corporation and he has done a good job.”

Not good enough, in the end, to keep it however. And if you specialize in breaking glass, sooner or later you may get cut.

After GM poached him from Nissan following a six-week stint there in 2010, the expectation was that Ewanick would quickly perform the kind of wonders for which he had become known at Hyundai — which was why Nissan recruited him in the first place. All accounts are that Ewanick had played a key role in the Korean brand's strong rise through the U.S. market during the last part of the decade, including its decision to launch the remarkable Hyundai Assurance incentive program during the depths of the Great Recession.

And certainly, Ewanick's tenure at GM was marked by one grand gambit after another. He started out by sacking nearly all of the company's existing ad-agency relationships and by hiring one of his lieutenants at Hyundai, Chris Perry, to head Chevrolet. More lately, Ewanick very publicly thumbed GM's nose at Faceook over a perceived lack of efficacy for advertising on the social-network site and said that the company is going to forego Super Bowl advertising next time around because it isn't cost-effective. The Manchester United deal was supposed to be a game-changing sort of substitute for those other things, extending Chevy's reach as a global brand to crucial rising markets such as China.

Hi soccer fumbling notwithstanding, Ewanick arguably didn't perform very well in his most crucial task: redefining the Chevrolet brand in an effective way. He hatched and has clung to the "Chevy Runs Deep" tagline for the last couple of years without evolving it into any kind of meaningful statement about the brand, beyond lending Tim Allen's recognizable voice to Chevy brand. To the extent Chevy has succeeded recently and boosted its bottom line, it's been because of a string of worthy new small cars — Cruze, Sonic, seemingly the new Spark, and even Volt — rather than anything Ewanick has specifically done on the marketing front.

As much as he didn't make many friends in the agency world, Ewanick became regarded internally by many GMers as both a troubling iconoclast and someone perhaps, ultimately, actually lacking in creative, game-changing new ideas. His public humiliation of Facebook and its business model just a few days before the site's IPO, for instance, wasn't universally appreciated inside the company, which reportedly made amends with Facebook ad sales head Carolyn Everson at the recent Cannes advertising festival. He also once questioned whether GM still needed the GMC brand, even though it's got high margins and loyal customers.

At the same time, Ewanick's last major tactical move, launching the "Chevy Confidence" summer close-out campaign, was clearly derivative of Hyundai Assurance — and came just as his employers were losing confidence in his abilities and judgment. He's not the only exec GM has lost confidence in lately, by the way — Dave Lyon, who designed the Chevy Volt interior and was poised to run the automaker's European design team, has also just left the automaker.

In any event, the polarizing Ewanick's departure leaves a lot of hanging questions not only for him but for the world's largest carmaker of 2011. What happens to his decision to forego the 2013 Super Bowl? Will GM return to paid advertising on Facebook? And how to counter a huge, basic image problem both in the U.S. and worldwide?

In the interim, the spotlight shifts to Batey, who recently was promoted to U.S, head of sales and service, as he takes over as CMO in Ewanick's wake. But that's about the only sure thing you can say about GM's brand position and marketing direction — let alone its confidence levels — at the moment.

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