Why There's an Ad-Chief Exodus in the Auto Biz

Thompson Latest to Exit a Carmaker That Wanted Big Profits in Short Time

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As budgets tighten and pressure builds, the departure of top marketing executives from automakers is accelerating.
Jan Thompson, former marketing VP of Nissan North America
Jan Thompson, former marketing VP of Nissan North America

Latest to go is Jan Thompson, who left last week after three years as marketing VP of Nissan North America. But she is hardly alone: More than a half-dozen high-level automotive marketers have left their companies -- and often the industry -- in the past year.

Former automotive-marketing executives and industry analysts blame the turnover on several factors:
  • Marketing is a chronic corporate scapegoat, since its success is hard to measure.
  • Automakers don't give marketing an equal place at the table with manufacturing and finance.
  • Marketing budgets can fluctuate wildly, and long-term brand-building strategies are undermined by short-term, sell-now thinking.
  • The new owner of Chrysler, the private-equity firm Cerberus, is turning up cost-cutting heat across the industry.
Julie Roehm, who quit last year as director-marketing communications at the then-Chrysler group, notes that the average tenure of automakers' chief marketing officers now "is right around the two-year mark."

'Easy target'
"Marketing is so visible, and because everyone feels they can understand what marketing does, it becomes an easy target for people to point to," Ms. Roehm said.

Mike Jackson, who resigned in May as General Motors' VP-North American marketing and advertising, said his 14-month tenure in that post was marked by growing frustration. The auto industry is "a very difficult business to make a difference," Mr. Jackson said. "I asked myself, 'Do I want to do this for the next 10 years?' And the quick answer was no."

Ms. Thompson said auto marketers now must become familiar with dozens of new media, along with traditional broadcast and print outlets. That increases pressure on marketers "to understand it all," she said. "It takes more time and more expertise," she said. "Now you can count 36 different media. ... Just negotiating them all is more complex."

Ms. Roehm left the Chrysler group to take a top marketing job at Wal-Mart Stores. The retail giant fired her last December over alleged violations of ethics rules, and Ms. Roehm is suing Wal-Mart over her dismissal.

Reevaluation
She said Cerberus' purchase of Chrysler is causing its competitors to review their returns on investment. Automakers often launch cars and trucks with fanfare, she said, but do not sustain spending to market those vehicles. "So it is very hard for [marketing executives] to point to long-term success," she said. "Most of them are experiencing a very roller-coaster-like ride, in terms of the type of the resources they get.

"When we put energy and time behind building brand value, we saw it was easier to sell a car," Ms. Roehm said. "But even when you bring that kind of information to the intelligent people running the company, it always comes down to, 'We have to move the metal today.'"
In May, Mike Jackson resigned as General Motors' VP-North American marketing and advertising.
In May, Mike Jackson resigned as General Motors' VP-North American marketing and advertising.

Mr. Jackson said he seeks to join a growing industry. He says his work at GM was hobbled by consumer perceptions of the company formed two decades ago, "when GM was perhaps not building the best products we could have built." He described "the sheer challenge of remaking, repositioning, rebranding the storied American brands outside of Detroit."

"I hate to lose," Mr. Jackson said. "I put 150% into the job. But it got to the point where I said, 'We're not moving the needle.' I just decided I wanted to do something where I could make a difference."

Shifting priorities
For automakers whose top marketers are leaving, Ms. Roehm said, their choice of successors will signal either a shift in strategy or business as usual. "If they bring in someone from an industry where marketing plays a strategic role, then maybe the auto company has decided that to succeed it needs to consider marketing as something other than an expense item," she said. "Otherwise, it is just a changing of the guard."

Vic Doolan, a former president of Volvo Cars North America, keeps tabs on industry talent as nonexecutive chairman of Courland Automotive Practice, an executive-search firm. Marketing executives routinely become "fall guys." "They are carrying a lot more blame for a situation that is beyond their control," he said. "Only the best will come out of this alive. And the best may well be washed up on the beach again."


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Ms. Connelly and Ms. Clark Geist report for Automotive News. AN's Lindsay Chappell also contributed to this story.
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