Final Inspection

Be Careful What You Wish For

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In the end, marketing guru Joel Ewanick’s fast-acting, shoot-from-the-hip style didn’t play well at the new GM.

Fast-acting, outside-the-box thinking with a bit of a rebel attitude?

Maybe that’s not what General Motors wants after all.

It got that, and more, in marketing chief Joel Ewanick, who wasn’t afraid to throw out the old playbook, create new advertising agencies nearly out of thin air, dodge all the usual corporate red tape and strike while the iron of a new idea was blazing hot.

While at GM, the ex-Hyundai marketing whiz challenged the validity of Facebook advertising, questioned the value of a Super Bowl commercial and ultimately crafted a groundbreaking deal with a U.K. soccer team meant to drive the Chevrolet brand into the hearts and minds of sports fans around the globe.

Ewanick was hired just for that new-wave thinking, and he appeared to be given free rein to reshuffle the brand-management decks. In December 2010, GM CEO Dan Akerson promoted the executive from head of North American marketing to global chief marketing officer, calling him “the right leader to take GM’s marketing strategy to the next level.”

“He’s full of energy and vim and vigor and comes across as a glass breaker,” Akerson reportedly told the Wall Street Journaljust two weeks ago.

But Ewanick apparently broke through one too many barriers.

The controversial Facebook faceoff, which hit the newspapers just as the social-media giant was about to go public, reportedly didn’t sit well with the folks in GM’s C-Suite.

And the sponsorship deal with the U.K.’s Manchester United soccer team, which came about quickly after a chance meeting between Ewanick and a team official at a marketing conference, blossomed into a whopping contract valued at anywhere from $300 million to $600 million, depending on who is doing the estimating.

That pact gives Chevrolet jersey sponsorship beginning in 2014-2015 and comes on top of a multiyear deal with the soccer team Ewanick announced in May that is said to be worth tens of millions of additional dollars, according to Reuters. All that reportedly doesn’t include a $100 million activation fee GM will pay Manchester United.

GM executives apparently either weren’t aware that the first deal didn’t include coveted jersey sponsorship or weren’t fully informed of the cost of the second deal, and that opened the door to Ewanick’s exit.

Any way you look at it the tie-up represents a big dollar commitment for an untried marketing venture and stands in stark contrast to the rather paltry $3.5 million per 30-second spot Ewanick was trying to save by not advertising during the Super Bowl broadcast. The sponsorship also might have riled Opel executives, who probably are wondering why Chevrolet and not their brand will be emblazoned across Manchester United jerseys.

But that’s not to say it isn’t a good strategy for building Chevrolet awareness globally, and it still represents only a fraction of the auto maker’s $4.5 billion annual ad spend. Ewanick could prove correct long-term that spreading the Chevy name worldwide through soccer is an economical way to boost sales across Europe and still-developing new markets.

One conclusion that can be drawn: Those glass-shattering, outside-the-box-thinking mavericks still look to be a bad culture fit, even at the new GM.

And note to the next guy who fills Ewanick’s seat: If they hand you the keys to the Corvette, try not to drive too fast.

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WardsAuto editors share insights and observations on the global auto industry.

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Dave Zoia

As Editorial Director, I oversee much of what goes into WardsAuto.com, enjoying a ringside seat that lets me observe up close just about every facet of the industry worldwide. I have covered the...

James M. Amend

James Amend is an associate editor at WardsAuto.com, covering day-to-day business and product news at General Motors. He also leads coverage of regulatory and environmental issues, as well as the...
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