LAS VEGAS – General Motors hired Joel Ewanick to shake up its marketing, then fired him when he shook too hard.

That’s his take on how he lost his 2-year stint as GM’s chief marketing officer. He gives details at an industry conference here.

GM unceremoniously axed Ewanick in 2012, bluntly saying in a statement he “failed to meet the expectations the company has of an employee.”

Immediately before the termination, he had drawn company ire for brokering a $559 million sponsorship deal with Manchester United, a U.K. soccer team with a worldwide following. He hailed the sponsorship as giving GM needed brand exposure outside the U.S.

“We crunched so much data, it became obvious” the tie-in was desirable, with “a (return on investment) four times the costs,” Ewanick says at the 2013 J.D. Power Automotive Marketing Roundtable.

The original deal ultimately was reworked. A bone of contention had been that Ewanick tried to spread costs across different GM marketing units. He stands by his basic Manchester United proposal. He feels justified, saying GM signed the deal on the day he was fired.

But he claims it wasn’t just one organizational dispute that did him in at GM. Instead, he cites a general pushback as he tried to usher in major changes at an automaker that at first had desperately wanted them as part of its post-bankruptcy reorganization plan, but then rejected his game-changers as times got better.

When GM regained its footing, “I could see the urgency go away,” Ewanick says. “Before, it was change, change, change. They told me to change whatever you want.”

So he did. Among his controversial moves was to pull GM ads from Facebook in favor of digital marketing elsewhere. He severed longtime ties with some ad agencies. He sought to more centralize GM’s marketing structure because of what he perceived as overseas units operating too independently.

“Marketing was decentralized around the world, and we aggregated it” in part to cut costs, Ewanick says. “That caused a great deal of angst.”

GM had hired him away from Hyundai where he gained fame as an unconventional and creative marketer with such programs as Hyundai Assurance that debuted in the recession year of 2009 when auto sales were horrid.

Under the program, if a person bought a Hyundai and then suffered a job loss, the automaker would buy back the vehicle. That happened fewer than 200 times, but the innovative program drew attention and praise.

Ewanick didn't feel secure at GM. “Mentors said, ‘When you go there, you are going to get fired.’ We rented a house for two years. When you are a change agent, trying to break glass, you’re going to get people cranky.”

Emotions besides peevishness were expressed, too, according to Ewanick’s account of a longtime GM employee painfully reacting to a new-assignment offer.

“I wanted to give this guy in his 40s a promotion, and talked to him about it for an hour,” he recalls. “I could tell he didn’t want the job. Then tears began running down his cheeks. He said, ‘Joel, I just want it the way it was.’”

In contrast, Ewanick says he brought to GM an energetic young Ford marketer who fit his bill as a derring-do type. “He had all the right ideas. He was disruptive and tried to change things.”

Ewanick now is a managing partner at consultancy Global Auto Systems. He says he doesn’t resent GM for his ill-fated years there.

Because the automaker got a government bailout and went into bankruptcy, “a lot of people had the perception about GM that they can’t be too bright or they wouldn’t be in this mess.”

But the talent level impressed him when he arrived. “Everyone there is bright,” he says. “They care about Detroit and about the company. Sometimes that gets in the way.”

Although GM is on better footing these days, it’s still finding its way, he says. “It is an amazing organization with a labyrinth of departments. It will take time to get to where it wants to go because it is so big.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com