Cannes 2012

Jeff Goodby and Joel Ewanick in Cannes: Can We Be Friends?

GM Marketing Chief and His Agency Banter About Ads, Relationships ... Oh, and That Facebook Thing

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"I thought I'd start by asking you what the deal was with that Facebook thing," Jeff Goodby said to Joel Ewanick, global CMO of General Motors, and his agency's most important client. It was a reference to GM's announcement last month that it'd be pulling advertising from Facebook at a rather unfortunate time: on the eve of its IPO.

"Motherf*****," Mr. Ewanick came back at him, laughing. "You're gonna pay for this shit."

Joel Ewanick
Joel Ewanick

The exchange sums up the final seminar at this year's Cannes advertising festival, a 45-minute-stroll down memory lane for one of the world's most-important marketers and one of its most-respected creatives. The pair has worked together on and off for over 20 years, first at Porsche, then at Hyundai and now at GM, where Mr. Ewanick controls over $6 billion in marketing spending and Goodby Silverstein & Partners makes ads for its iconic Chevrolet brand.

Client-agency presentations are usually self-serving snoozefests. This one was spiced up by a lot of good-natured ribbing and profanity, a little white wine, and some pretty good spots the pair has made over the years. The seminar was titled "Can Your Client Be Your Friend?" and the two men's back and forth seemed to answer that question in the affirmative, despite the problems they've caused each other over the years.

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Jeff Goodby
Jeff Goodby Credit: Darryl Estrine

Back in the 1990s, Goodby quit Porsche because of a client conflict, choosing to work with Isuzu instead. "That was good decision-making," Mr. Ewanick sniped. Years later, after handing the Chevrolet work to Goodby without a review and the agency opening an office in Detroit to service the business, Mr. Ewanick made them re-pitch the account. Along the way, he publicly assessed their output as "C and B work."

"There's one agency I'd trust a $1.3 billion account with without a pitch," said Mr. Ewanick. "I called Wieden & Kennedy and they turned it down. Dan [Wieden] said 'No fucking way.'" After pausing, he said, "That's a joke."

Along with memorable spots for Hyundai and GM, they showed this clunker.

If Mr. Ewanick's affections for the agency weren't clear, he ended with this: "There's three agencies I want to work with. The first is you. The second is you. The third is you."

"Aw," Mr. Goodby said. "That's sweet."

Over the past few years, Mr. Ewanick has made a name for himself as a controversial marketer who's tough on agencies and, recently, media companies. The Facebook news, reported by the Wall Street Journal just days before the IPO, was the subject of a lot of tsk-tsk'ing around the industry, the perception being that Mr. Ewanick was trying to rain on the social network's parade at the worst of all possible moments.

Onstage, Mr. Ewanick insisted that wasn't the case.

"That was a really unfortunate situation. A lot of people like to speculate and they think we were out to get Facebook. That's just not true. That's not something that General Motors or I would do."

Mr. Ewanick said, "My boss asked me to be very transparent and very open with the reporter. I thought it was for this article [that came out] last week. The next day we saw this article and we're like 'What the hell?' and two days later she had the Super Bowl thing."

"The Super Bowl thing" was a reference to another WSJ story, about Mr. Ewanick's plans to forego advertising in the big game this year. Suzanne Vranica, one of the Journal staffers with bylines on these stories, declined to comment.

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