August 1, 2012
They Shoot CMOs, Don’t They? In this case no, they shoot themselves.
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
(Posted 7/30, 2:30 p.m.) Detroit. Joel Ewanick has reached the end of the road as Chief Marketing Officer at the “new” General Motors, after just two years in the job. Perhaps I should have left the “just” out, because the average tenure as a CMO in corporate America is something like three years, if that.
News of Ewanick’s departure percolated up from the always-buzzing channels of the rumor mill in the Detroit automotive community on Friday, with confirmation coming from GM when The Wall Street Journal broke the news yesterday.
The “official” reason given? "He failed to meet the expectations the company has of an employee," according to GM spokesman Greg Martin, with no elaboration.
The real reason for Ewanick's departure is focused around a multi-year deal that Ewanick signed with the British Premier League's Manchester United, the world's most popular soccer club and most valuable sports franchise, in the interest of promoting Chevrolet – GM’s most important brand – globally. And it is suggested that Ewanick did something totally inappropriate in the course of doing the deal, something that was completely unacceptable by any measure. What it is, exactly, may in fact come out eventually, but for the time being Ewanick's departure from GM revolves around this fundamental issue and it has not been disclosed.
I got to know Joel pretty well in his brief stay here in the Motor City, and I wondered if he was really the right fit for a company that was so moribund and set in its ways when it comes to marketing. Joel came from Hyundai, the quintessential “coming” brand (after several other stops on the automotive marketing trail), and his style of “big bang” marketing thrusts and initiatives was bound to clash with GM’s senior operatives.
The first thing Ewanick did upon his arrival was to enlist two longtime colleagues to help him turn around Chevrolet and Cadillac. Joel handed the massive Chevrolet advertising account to Jeff Goodby, of Omnicom Group’s Goodby Silverstein & Partners, in San Francisco, and the Cadillac account to Pat Fallon, of Fallon, in Minneapolis.
Goodby and Ewanick go way back, in fact Joel fired Goodby at one point in their past advertising lives together. Goodby, known for his creative streaks and campaigns that resonate, was an interesting choice for Chevrolet, as his agency had never tackled an account of that scale before. The Chevrolet account runs on the decidedly unglamorous blocking and tackling inertia a lot of the time, something that is part and parcel of servicing a huge client, and Goodby and his organization, while focused on the creative – and rightly so – found that part of handling Chevrolet the most challenging.
Goodby delivered some individual hit spots for Chevrolet, but the consistency that Ewanick needed was lacking, and the “Chevy Runs Deep” campaign theme failed to resonate at the level that I and others felt was necessary for an iconic brand like Chevrolet.
Ewanick’s adventure with Fallon was less successful. As a matter of fact Fallon has been “on the bubble” with the Cadillac account almost from Day One of the association, simply because Fallon couldn’t deliver the goods for Cadillac. It is only just recently that Fallon has emerged as a solid force for the brand due to the excellent work that the agency has done for the new Cadillac ATS campaign.
Another major component of Ewanick’s tenure at GM was his answering the call of CEO Dan Akerson to cut costs wherever he could on the marketing side of things. Joel responded by consolidating GM’s huge media buying operation with one global agency – Carat, a UK-based company – earlier this year. And then he formed a new global agency for Chevrolet, featuring the creative leadership of Goodby combined with the global structural reach of Interpublic’s McCann Erickson Worldwide. The new global Chevrolet advertising agency was called "Commonwealth," and it would reduce the 70 ad agencies involved in Chevrolet advertising around the globe to just one giant single ad agency. Due to both of these major moves Ewanick promised a savings of $2 billion over five years, a staggering figure that few in the business believed was actually possible. (I personally felt it was a preposterous promise that wasn't even close to coming true, and what this means for the Commonwealth venture is anyone's guess at this point. Is it too far down the road to be unwound? We'll just have to wait and see.)
So those are the high hard ones of the Ewanick adventure at the “new” GM, but the reality of the matter is that Ewanick’s tenure had an end as soon as he walked through the door. That’s just the nature of the CMO job in corporate America these days, especially when it comes to marketing and advertising automobiles.
For a company that once roamed the earth in dominant fashion, marketing and advertising has never been its strong suit, and GM’s “culture” – such as it is – was never going to get comfortable with a Joel Ewanick for very long. He’s too quick, at times mercurial, and too much a man of motion for the plodding calcification of the GM system. In one of my favorite moves by Ewanick, he had the cojones to tell Facebook to get their act together and actually provide some recognizable value for their paid advertising content. And he was absolutely right. He knew they were basically selling "air" and he was unafraid to call them on it.
It could be argued fairly, too, that Ewanick didn’t spend enough time defining and differentiating GM’s brands, while focusing too much on his “big-picture” endeavors. And that proved costly to GM's efforts.
Over the years I’ve come to realize that GM’s view of marketing and advertising was that it is something that they were forced to do – a necessary evil of sorts – as opposed to something that they actually wanted to do, and someone like Joel Ewanick was anathema to that very notion. Joel did some tremendous work on GM's behalf and moved the needle notably in his brief two-year run. But he also did something untoward, inappropriate and indefensible in the course of doing business that was deemed completely unacceptable. And because of that most of the goodwill Joel accrued at GM was lost overnight.
Joel Ewanick wasn't “shot” by upper level GM executives - the fact of the matter is that he unequivocally shot himself.
GM has announced that Alan Batey, the company’s vice president of U.S. sales and service, has been appointed interim global chief marketing officer. Batey had been promoted from vice president of Chevrolet sales and service to his current role this past May. Batey was “discovered” by Mark Reuss when Reuss ran GM’s Holden operations in Australia, and he’s a hard-core sales guy, the kind of grinder that GM is looking for now that they’re done with the Joel Ewanick adventure.
But Batey won't be the guy who will get the permanent job from what I've been told, which is a very good thing, because I don't see anyone currently under the current GM marketing umbrella who is qualified to lead the company's marketing and advertising initiatives.
Ewanick's departure is yet another blow to GM's efforts and it couldn't have come at a worse time.
Not a good day for them by any measure.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.