Whitacre Exit Unlikely to Affect GM Marketing

Ewanick to Remain Autonomous Under New CEO Daniel Akerson

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The change at the top of General Motors Co. should have no effect on the automaker's advertising or on new VP-Marketing Joel Ewanick and his radical, lightning-quick agency moves. Incoming CEO Daniel Akerson is said to be as in tune with advertising, maybe more so, than outgoing CEO Ed Whitacre.

Ed Whitacre
Ed Whitacre Credit: GM
"Before he came on board [in May], Joel was made aware -- if not outright then it was certainly implied -- that Ed wasn't going to be there long term," one GM executive, who asked to remain anonymous, told Ad Age. "Joel is fine with it. He's fine with Dan, and Joel knows he's still running the show when it comes to marketing."

In fact, an executive at one of GM's ad agencies said Mr. Ewanick is "happy" with the decision.

As part of an earnings conference call this morning, in which it reported a second consecutive quarter of profits after a string of losses dating back to 2007, GM announced that Mr. Akerson will succeed Mr. Whitacre as company CEO on Sept. 1.

Mr. Akerson, 61, has served on GM's board of directors since July of 2009, around the time the U.S. government became the majority owner of the Detroit-based car maker after a $50 billion bailout. He becomes CEO in two weeks and will become chairman by the end of the year, the company said.

On a conference call, Mr. Akerson said he does not expect to make any immediate changes, calling GM's current leadership "a broad and deep bench."

Said another executive at one of GM's current ad shops: "I don't know Mr. Akerson at all. I suspect he won't make any big changes until after the IPO, though. Ed has gotten things going in the right direction, everyone believes."

Mr. Ewanick was not available for comment.

Daniel Akerson
Daniel Akerson Credit: GM
The move still has its curious intangibles, however. It comes just days before GM is expected to announce the details of its planned initial public offering, and it involves putting another non-car guy at the top. Mr. Whitacre had a telecom background at SBC Communications; Mr. Akerson was the head of Nextel, where he is credited with transforming the company from a walkie-talkie maker into a national wireless competitor.

"It isn't so much a telecom-telecom thing," said Peter DeLorenzo, a longtime automotive advertising and marketing executive who runs AutoExtremist.com. "Read between the lines -- it's another accountant-type."

Indeed, Mr. Akerson has a strong financial background and is said to be well-respected by Wall Street.

"General Motors doesn't need more conventional thinking, they need new thinking," said Cameron McNaughton, president of consultancy McNaughton Automotive Perspectives. "Some people would argue an automotive guy at the top would be a good thing, but General Motors has got tons of those. I personally think it's good they've gone to another outsider. They need to change the culture. And they don't need somebody to do Joel's job for him -- they need somebody to make the company's IPO successful and create a long-term path for GM."

While Mr. Whitacre as CEO didn't interact with GM's advertising operations on a daily basis, he's had a hand in them from time to time and is said to be kept abreast of new ad initiatives going on within the company. It was he and GM North American President Mark Reuss who lured Mr. Ewanick away from Nissan with the promise that the marketing guru would have virtual autonomy to run GM's advertising.

But while Mr. Whitacre was a visible face for GM, his appearance in a controversial spot earlier this year -- prior to Mr. Ewanick's arrival -- probably ensures that the automaker won't be using Mr. Akerson in any IPO-related advertising.

"We got burned by the Ed Whitacre commercial," said a GM exec, referring to the 60-second spot from McCann-Erickson, Detroit, in late April that showed Mr. Whitacre walking through an assembly plant and declaring, "We have repaid our government loan in full, with interest, five years ahead of the original schedule."

Critics slammed the commercial as disingenuous, saying the repayment came from another government bailout account provided by the Troubled Assets Relief Program, and the Washington-based advocacy group Competitive Enterprise Institute actually filed a formal complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, charging General Motors with deceptive advertising.

"We won't be going down that road again," the GM exec said.

Mr. McNaughton agreed.

"Whitacre in the ads was not a strong approach; it reminded me way too much of Lee Iacocca, and I don't think he positioned any of the brands," he said. "That last ad he did where he talked about paying back the loan was outrageous. ... There was something not kosher about that. From a marketing point of view, their job is to get those four brands clearly positioned and clearly understood in the consumers' eyes."

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