Joel Ewanick's barely out of the door after a tumultuous two years with General Motors, and interim CMO Alan Batey is already jumping into action, attempting to steer the conversation about GM's marketing activities to a positive place.
Mr. Batey started out his first day on the job by speaking publicly about General Motors further strengthening its relationship with soccer club Manchester United -- which, interestingly, is the very same relationship that 's being reported as the root of Mr. Ewanick's ouster. A Reuters report credited an unnamed source who said Mr. Ewanick failed to properly report financial details about the recent sponsorship deal.
In May, GM announced a five-year sponsorship deal with Manchester United, which, amid talk of the carmaker pulling out of the Super Bowl after a big presence in the game in previous years, came across loud-and-clear as a statement about GM's focusing on trying to make Chevrolet into an iconic global brand. CEO Dan Akerson is also understood to want sales of GM brands like Chevrolet and Cadillac to be less dependent on the home market in the U.S.
Now, just hours after the news of Mr. Ewanick's departure, the automaker has announced that its biggest brand, Chevrolet, will be the football club's latest shirt sponsor, starting with the 2014-2015 season. The seven-year deal for the shirts, which was signed for an undisclosed amount, will make GM the fifth sponsor in Manchester United's 134-year history. The Detroit-based automaker replaces insurance broker Aon, whose partnership with Manchester United began in the 2010-2011 season.
Insurance firm Aon is paying Manchester United about 20 million pounds -- $31 million, based on current exchange rates -- a year as exclusive shirt sponsor in a deal that began in 2010 and goes through the 2013-2014 season, according to disclosures Manchester United made this month in a filing for a U.S. initial public stock offering.
If Chevrolet pays what Aon's been paying, then Chevy's seven-year deal could cost GM more than $200 million.
That's a lot of money, though still just a small portion of what GM spends on worldwide advertising and sales promotion ($5.6 billion in 2011, according to GM's 10-K). It's conceivable Chevrolet could pay more than Aon; the price tag on Manchester United's shirt sponsorship has been rising. Aon rival American International Group, which had shirt rights from 2007 to 2010, paid about 14 million pounds -- $22 million -- a year. Vodafone, a U.K. telecom company (and minority owner of Verizon Wireless), paid about 8 million pounds -- $12.6 million — a year as the club's shirt sponsor from 2000 through 2006.
"We are extremely proud to connect our brand, Chevrolet, with Manchester United and its passionate supporters all around the world," said Mr. Batey, who in addition to interim CMO is North America VP-U.S. sales and service, in a statement. "Manchester United's statistics are impressive, but this relationship goes far beyond the numbers -- this relationship is about connecting our brand with the deep-seated emotion that surrounds the team everywhere it goes."
It's a swift effort on Mr. Batey's part to seize control of the conversation, rather than avoiding the Manchester United topic completely.
GM has been largely mum on the reasons for Mr. Ewanick's departure, apart from a cryptic quote to Ad Age sibling publication Automotive News that said he "failed to meet the expectations the company has of an employee."
People close to GM say they'd be surprised that , in a company with so many checks and balances, that a sponsorship deal would get through if it wasn't airtight and squeaky clean.
"I find it hard to believe that that would be the impetus for Joel leaving the organization, because there are just too many processes and signature autority needed that would eliminate," one executive close to GM told Ad Age . "It'd be almost impossible, and given Sarbanes Oxley there is so much oversight on all these deals that go on. I couldn't believe that GM would be so lax with their controls...especially since the whole bankruptcy situation. It could be GM not looking to have egg on their face because they hired the wrong person to start with."
Then again, it wasn't long ago that the company's chief financial officer was under fire for a payment made to his spouse's ad agency, a move GM chose to defend.
Either way, as GM begins its hunt for a permanent CMO to replace Mr. Ewanick, Mr. Batey won't be sitting idly. People familiar with the matter say that Mr. Batey is on better terms with GM North America President Mark Reuss that Mr. Ewanick was, and that could be telling for whoever is brought in as CMO next.
Contributing: Bradley Johnson