"I wouldn't get to do that at GM. Even if I did, it would take a long time," he said then.
That was then. This is now. On Sept. 1, three years after returning to GM, he became VP-marketing and advertising for GM in North America. In his new job, Mr. LaNeve is responsible for working with GM's vehicle divisions on their focused identities, cross-divisional programs and developing corporate, best-practice standards in marketing. He also sits on a global marketing group just as GM is starting a big worldwide drive for Chevrolet and Cadillac.
It's a tough time in the car business these days and particularly difficult for the auto giant. Its North American arm posted a loss of $22 million in the third quarter and although GM has several hot-selling new models, it has boosted U.S. vehicle sales with cross-divisional ad blitzes offering generous deals.
Those who know him say Mr. LaNeve has the right stuff for the job.
"He's tremendously competitive and very focused. And that, with the right marketing resources, makes for a potent combination," said John Maloney, VP-communications at Volvo. He credited Mr. LaNeve with leading that brand into more emotional marketing.
The time he spent at Volvo "really helped him" clarify what makes a great brand and how to develop the right message, said Bob Austin, general manager of communications at Rolls-Royce Motor Cars in North America.
If Mr. LaNeve weren't in the car business, he'd make the greatest high-school football coach, said Mr. Austin, who worked with him at Volvo. Like a coach, "he gets the best out of the people around him" by encouraging them to find solutions, he said.
That's an apt comparison for the football-mad Mr. LaNeve, a native of Beaver Falls, Pa. He was an All-American linebacker at the University of Virginia before spending the bulk of his career handling the Cadillac brand at GM. After rising to president-CEO of Volvo, he returned to GM in 2001 as general manager for Cadillac.
Mr. LaNeve knows how to create automotive success, said Jack Moore Jr., a Cadillac dealer in Richmond, Va. Mr. Moore, a former member of Cadillac's dealers' council, credited Mr. LaNeve for extending Cadillac's marketing. He launched nontraditional efforts such as celebrity shuttles in Hollywood during the Oscars and worked with the National Football League, "basically inventing" the MVP Super Bowl award sponsored by Cadillac, said Mr. Moore.
"Mark not only has academic smarts, but a lot of street smarts," said Phil Guarascio, GM's former ad czar and now senior VP-marketing sales and advertising at the National Football League.
Mr. LaNeve hasn't made any changes in his unit since his promotion. Indeed, he still has a few boxes to unpack in his new office at GM headquarters.
But he hinted of things to come: "You'll see us really focus our efforts on where we have a real advantage in the marketplace." GM, as a parent brand, really needs to focus on its cross-divisional advantages, he said.
Name: Mark LaNeve
Now: VP-advertising and marketing, North America, General Motors Corp.
Challenge: "To increase market share and run a profitable business on the strength of great new products that deliver on the promise of our brands."
Football junkie: A former linebacker with the University of Virginia, he spent a recent weekend watching a local high school game on Friday night, watching college games on TV on Saturday and attending a Detroit Lions' game on Sunday.
Marketers in the huddle: "To me, marketing is a sport, so you've got to figure out what your assets are, how to deploy them and what the competition has. There's no tried-and-true formula."
Multicultural focus: "Diversity is mainstream, especially with the youth market and in major cities."
Proudest career achievement: Making Cadillac an aspirational and cool brand again as its general manager, following his return to GM in 2001. "I inherited a great product program and put everything in place," he said.
Special delivery: "One of the most important things Mark can deliver to GM is his great sense of what a brand is," says Rolls-Royce's Bob Austin. "I don't mean a textbook definition, but a real gut understanding-what a brand is."