Questions swirl about GM canning Ewanick as global marketing head

In a weekend press release they probably hoped no one would notice, GM announced Sunday, July 29, that global marketing chief Joel Ewanick was leaving the company.

The timing didn’t work, because industry and business news media are now alive with speculation over whether he was allowed to resign or was unceremoniously dumped and, in either event, why. “A press release issued by GM states that Ewanick had ‘elected to resign immediately,’ while a report by Automotive News claims he was dismissed,” Autoblog reports.

All that spokesman Greg Martin would say was, “He failed to meet the expectations the company has of an employee,” which raises more questions than it answers.

But the answer may fall into one of three categories — or perhaps a combination of all three of them.

Theory 1: dumb decisions

The first possibility is plain old incompetence, which, historically, has rarely been a reason for getting fired from GM before.

But there’s no mistaking the fact that a large number of marketing decisions made on Ewanick’s watch were really dumb ones.

Ewanick green-lighted the vapid and meaningless “Chevy Runs Deep” campaign, which Autoblog calls “controversial” and “which critics have said falls short of providing an identity or narrative for GM’s mainstay brand,” according to industry paper of record Automotive News.

After a Super Bowl Chevy truck commercial produced an immediate decline in interest in the Chevrolet Silverado 1500 and a massive surge of hits for the rival Ford F-150 on the Kelly Blue Book website (and in showroom traffic), Ewanick announced the auto company was pulling out of Super Bowl advertising, supposedly because “it’s just getting too expensive.”

After taking the better part of a year to learn that his $10 million worth of Facebook advertising “had little impact on consumers,” Ewanick pulled the plug on Facebook advertising, just days before its IPO.

But while GM was using Facebook to promote planting trees in national forests, rival Ford was using the same medium to increase Explorer shopping by 104%; producing amazingly high volumes of leads, test drives and conversions for Fiesta; and getting one million views a day for their Mustang “customizer” app.

As Samsung Mobile’s Brian Wallace put it, “Blaming Facebook for a lack of ROI on your advertising is akin to blaming the [I]nternet because no one purchased from your website.”

According to the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg, though, Ewanick’s biggest advertising mistake — and certainly his most recent one — may have been one that’s not on television and the Internet for everyone to see: “[P]eople familiar with the matter said Ewanick was removed for failing to adequately appraise the financial details of a recent sponsorship deal with Manchester United, a popular U.K. soccer team.”

Theory 2: doesn’t work and play well with others

“Mr. Ewanick has been a polarizing force both within GM and on Madison Avenue,” notes Sharon Terlep in the Wall Street Journal.

“He’s full of energy and vim and vigor and comes across as a glass breaker,” said his former boss, CEO Dan Akerson. “He is willing to challenge the status quo of the corporation…”

In a company infamous for management by committee and consensus, that can be the kiss of death.

“One of my jobs is to make sure people don’t relax, to keep the tension high,” Ewanick said in an earlier interview. “I don’t mean to hurt people, but everything matters now and we have to be great.”

As noted above, “great” isn’t quite the right word to describe his advertising decisions. And a lot of people both inside GM and out took umbrage from them — not only his Facebook decision  and its timing, but also his riling the television networks by unsuccessfully demanding 20% rate cuts on top of the deep discounts America’s third-largest tv advertisier already enjoyed, at the risk of losing upfront availabilities.

His firing dozens of advertising agencies to consolidate worldwide creative into one Detroit agency and worldwide media buying into one London firm may save GM $2 billion over five years as promised, but at the cost of lots of bruised egos.

Theory 3: scapegoat

Despite press reports about Government Motors’ resurgence, the numbers look much worse in context.

Celebratory news releases boast of this year’s Chevy Volt sales — 8,817 through June — exceeding all of last year’s 7,600 and projecting to about 18,000 cars total look great — until you remember that the announced Volt sales goal for 2012 was 45,000.

So does a six-month overall sales gain of 4%, until you realize that’s in a market up 15% and represents an actual loss of share.

This performance has inspired what the Automotive News gently characterizes as a certain “volatility within GM’s executive ranks under Dan Akerson, who became GM’s CEO a few months after Ewanick joined.”

Either to cure a massive string of failures, or maybe to shift blame for them, Akerson has been firing senior executives left and right.

He replaced GM’s product development chief and the head of money-losing European operations. Twice. He replaced the CFO, a high-profile hire from Microsoft, along with the company’s manufacturing and engineering heads. He’s appointed two new OnStar unit chiefs in as many years.

So maybe Ewanick’s was just the latest head to roll.

GM ranked 12th out of 13 brands in this year’s Consumer Reports automotive scorecard. Not one of their products is on’s list of the ten most popular cars brands with women. They’ve had 50,000-car recalls, Volt battery fires, plant closings due to lack of consumer demand, and major-market dealerships refusing to accept new-car deliveries.

Changing the advertising and adopting Queen of Hearts executive personnel policies (“Off with their heads!”) won’t solve those problems.

It would be nice if something would. Because with their largest stockholder being the United States of America (Barrack H. Obama, CEO), all the money GM’s losing is yours and mine.