Ewanick Talks Agency Shifts, Ad Taglines, Swimming Lanes

Automaker's Top Marketing Exec Admits Chevy Shift Could Have Been Handled Better

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Back in April, Joel Ewanick picked up the phone in Nashville, Tenn., where weeks earlier he had just started his new job as the chief marketing officer for Nissan Motor America. On the line was his real-estate agent, advising Mr. Ewanick that the initial offer he and his wife had put in to purchase a home in the area had been rejected. But the agent was confident that, with a little tweaking, a revised offer would be accepted that very night.

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Minutes later, his cellphone rang again. That was quick, Mr. Ewanick thought.

But it wasn't the real-estate agent. "Joel," came the voice on the other end. "It's Mark. We need to do this. You have to do this."

It was Mark Reuss, General Motors Co. president-North America, continuing his second courtship of Mr. Ewanick in less than six weeks. Mr. Ewanick was fascinated with the possibilities, but wary of GM's past corporate structure of layer upon layer upon layer of approvals. Prior to joining Nissan, after his stint at Hyundai, he said it just didn't feel right to join GM at that moment.

But now Mr. Reuss was calling with his own real-estate deal -- he was offering Mr. Ewanick the keys to the house. GM's house.

"He said he needed me to do what I needed to do to fix the marketing. I said 'Anything?' and he said 'Everything and anything. I've got your back, and Ed [Whitacre, GM's CEO] has your back. Just do what you need to do,' " Mr. Ewanick recalled. "The conversation lasted maybe 30-40 seconds and I said, 'OK. I'll do it.' I didn't even ask how much it was going to pay, what I was going to do. ... Somehow, at that time, I felt it was the right time and the right moment in my career. I went to Carlos [Tavares, Nissan's president] and I said they called, and it was almost like I felt my country was calling me."

He's run with it ever since. In two short months Mr. Ewanick has made GM a marketing player again. With an increased advertising budget -- GM's idea, he said, not his -- he has not wasted any time in putting his own signature on the automaker's advertising.

According to Mr. Ewanick, virtually every auto industry observer said the company has made the necessary changes to leadership and improved its design and product. But marketing remained an issue. "It seemed to me that General Motors had forgotten their customers in all their conversations, the fundamental understanding of what the customer wants," he said. "What was missing was developing communications about what resonates with the customer."

To that end, Mr. Ewanick has created what he termed "swim lanes" for each of GM's four brands -- Chevrolet, Cadillac, GMC and Buick -- that he calls "very specific to that target audience." He also put together a Marketing Mafia, if you will, of the heads of the four agencies that handle those brands -- Jeff Goodby (Goodby, Silverstein & Partners for Chevy), Pat Fallon (Fallon, for Cadillac), Rich Stoddart of Leo Burnett (Buick and GMC) and Gary Neel of McCann (corporate work). The four men meet bi-monthly in Detroit.

"They present work, we critique each other's work, we use it as a sounding board to make sure we're staying in the swim lanes and make sure we're doing the best possible work," Mr. Ewanick said. "Everybody checks their ego at the door."

Two of the agencies in that group -- Goodby and Fallon -- are new. Mr. Ewanick made the nearly $1 billion in media changes without a review, adding to the ongoing ad industry hot-button issue of whether marketers even need to conduct reviews.

"When you have an agency like Goodby sitting in the wings with no car account, it's an easy decision. We could go through six months [of a review] and we're still going to pick Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. I'm sorry, we just will," he said. "I don't think we're missing anything. I watch all the ads; I know who's doing good work and not doing good work. These are huge accounts, and they deserve to have people who have been there before run them."

Mr. Ewanick also called himself "agnostic" to holding companies. "I pick the agency I think will do the best job."

While he doesn't regret the shifts, he does admit that they haven't always been well-handled. He admitted the company "messed up" the transition of the $600 million Chevrolet account to Goodby without first speaking with Publicis Groupe. "We messed up the handling of how we were going to release the information to the folks at Publicis. And that was our doing," Mr. Ewanick said. "I'm kind of disappointed about this, but it also taught me a lesson about what happens at Chevrolet. There's a sequence about how these things should be announced. We were trying to make telephone calls and get to them and talk to [holding company CEO] Maurice [Levy] and talk to [Publicis USA Chairman-CEO] Susan [Gianinno] and let them know what was going on. Someone on our side, internally, leaked it. ... Maurice and I are fine."

Fallon will shepherd Cadillac's new tagline, "The new standard of the world," and forthcoming ad campaigns for the brand will center on a theme that Mr. Ewanick liked from that agency's strategy document describing the Caddy as "red-blooded luxury." It is not known if that particular phrase will be used, but Mr. Ewanick liked it as a way of separating the American-built Cadillac from foreign luxury cars.

More ad-budget money, he said, will go into social media and search. And true to the big-event strategy Mr. Ewanick was known for at Hyundai, GM will also return to the Super Bowl.

Oh, and nobody will be fined 25¢ for saying "Chevy" instead of "Chevrolet" at GM's corporate headquarters. "They never were," Mr. Ewanick said with a laugh.

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