Theories Behind Ewanick's GM Exit Run Deep

Was It A Culture Clash Or Something More? Adland Isn't Sure

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Clashing cultures. Lagging sales. Massive changes in marketing. An outsize ego. Hints of a policy breach.

Joel Ewanick
Joel Ewanick

All those plot lines seem to have played part in the soap opera that riveted adland last week: the dramatic weekend departure from General Motors of Joel Ewanick, the larger-than-life marketer who held the keys to the country's second-largest advertising budget.

Technically, Mr. Ewanick resigned after 26 months. But it was immediately clear this was more than a simple resignation. GM itself unleashed the rumor hounds when it took the unusual step of qualifying that Mr. Ewanick "failed to meet the expectations the company has of its employees."

The question is what those expectations actually were, and neither side is talking. GM declined to comment beyond the statement, and Mr. Ewanick could not be reached for comment.

But this much is certain: For all the bold moves under Mr. Ewanick's reign, the company struggled to pull in new customers. GM's first-half 2012 sales were up only 4% over last year, far behind the 15% increase the rest of the U.S. auto industry was enjoying.

Many in the industry suggest that when GM asked for a "glass breaker," as CEO Dan Akerson called Mr. Ewanick in The Wall Street Journal, it forgot that the resultant shards can be sharp.

Consider that in a matter of weeks, Mr. Ewanick delayed committing a healthy portion of GM's $3.5 billion ad budget to network TV's annual upfront bonanza, holding up the process in a push for reduced ad rates; broke tradition by deciding GM wouldn't advertise in the Super Bowl; and caused a media circus when he yanked paid advertising on Facebook on the eve of the social-media site's initial public offering.

But those events were only the latest part of a two-year drama taking place in and outside the Renaissance Center, as Mr. Ewanick replaced Publicis with Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in May 2010 without even returning the calls of the losing agency; reviewed GM's $3 billion media account; and engineered a radical agency structure between Interpublic Group of Cos. and Omnicom called Commonwealth for Chevrolet.

Observers maintain that Mr. Ewanick's brash style was antithetical to GM—even a GM that actively sought to embrace change. (And change it did: Since Mr. Akerson joined, GM installed a new product-development chief, replaced the heads of GM's European operations and the heads of its manufacturing, engineering and OnStar unit, Automotive News reported.)

"For Joel to have come from Hyundai to GM is like going to another planet," said Rod Campbell, consultant at Campbell Automotive Advisor Services. "There was probably a lot of "Who the hell does this guy think he is ?'"

Yet the GM insider insists the company did not run for cover when Mr. Ewanick broke glass, but that instead Mr. Ewanick ran marketing as if it were his own private fiefdom. "This is about the manifestation of someone whose mentality was, "I need to get something done, so I'm going to just go ahead and do it,' " said the insider.

Even Jeff Goodby said in an email to staffers obtained by Ad Age , "we have been close to Joel for years and consider him to be one of the best marketing people we have ever worked with. He is an impatient character, though, and may have simply tried to do too much too fast." Mr. Goodby could not be reached for comment on the memo.

It seems significant that none of the changes Mr. Ewanick made are being unwound by GM. Chief Financial Officer Dan Ammann said of its marketing, "the fundamental approach is , no change." Mr. Akerson jumped in with: "I know a lot of the public views this as a personality-driven industry. It's a team effort. What you saw in the marketplace was a thought-out strategy that was agreed upon as a team."

Whatever the case, the breaking point seemed to have come with the deal Mr. Ewanick cut with Manchester United. As originally announced in May, the deal was for heavy signage at the team's stadium, as well as other elements including Chevy vehicles at player appearances, commercial time on Man U's Red Devil Network and creation of the Chevrolet China Cup tournament as part of the team's 2012 tour.

But the five-year deal did not include jersey sponsorship of Manchester United. A day after Mr. Ewanick's departure, GM officials put together a hastily arranged statement saying the automaker had agreed to terms with Man U to become the soccer club's jersey sponsor—a seven-year deal beginning in 2014 for a reported $600 million.

Ad Age asked the GM insider if Mr. Ewanick was unhappy with the terms of the deal. No, said the insider. "There isn't a CMO in the world who hasn't botched a deal or paid too much. If that was the sole case, he'd still be here."

So could it be, then, that he failed to get the proper sign off? Chris Lencheski, who worked with GM at sports-marketing agency SKI & Co. and is now president of Front Row Marketing, shot the theory down. "Deals like that , they go through purchasing. They go through procurement. They go through legal. This was not Joel acting alone," he said.

So for now, that leaves the advertising and marketing world to only speculate as to the real story of Mr. Ewanick's exit—which true to character, was as dramatic as his entry, when he shocked the industry by ditching Nissan after six weeks.

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