The Meaning of Joel Ewanick

Joel Ewanick, GM’s ousted chief marketing officer, was a good story while he lasted.

For ad publications, chief marketing officers are the most important people in the business. The ultimate arbiters of change in media, they — collectively and individually — can make or break a media partner or a new technology platform. They have huge information and technical resources at their disposal, not to mention spending influence. In a way, our only job is to cover what’s going on in their heads.

They also tend not to stick around long, though that appears to be changing. The average tenure of a CMO has gone up in recent years, according to Spencer Stuart, from a low of 23 months in 2006 to an average of 43 months as of June 2012.

Ewanick was on the job just two years, about half the current average, but in that time he was very productive as a ruffler of feathers and rankler of media vendors (who knew better than complain publicly about it). In the past year in particular, he’s blazed a trail of destruction across the automaker’s media spend, both digital and traditional. Many of his recent decisions seem to be about opting out of media platforms that his colleagues at other huge brands treat as must-buys.

A quick summary…

Facebook Facepalm. You know the story. GM yanked 100% of its Facebook ad spend on the eve of the latter’s IPO. The move fed into a negative tide against Facebook’s stock, which persists two months later.

Taunting TV. Under Ewanick, GM decided to skip the Super Bowl and walk away from TV upfront negotiations (AdAge). This was viewed by some, including Pivotal Research analyst Brian Weiser, as GM exercising its credible ability to turn its back negotiations. “It is willing to walk away from any negotiation with any media owner,” Weiser wrote.

Slash And Burn. Agencies have not escaped the knife. Mike Colias reported in Automotive News that in a bid to cut $2 billion in marketing costs over five years, Ewanick transferred all GM media buying to Carat and consolidated Chevy’s creative work “from dozens of agencies globally to just one firm, Commonwealth of Detroit.”

What can we take away from the short tenure and sudden dismissal of Mr. Ewanick?

Change Is Constant. Don’t trust whatever stability you may perceive in your customer relationships, even if you have (or think you have) C-level buy-in from the client. Ewanick showed through his aggressive cuts, and now through his exit, how fast things can change.

Performance Matters. The reason GM gave Ewanick for his dismissal, according to WSJ sources, was a failure to “properly vet the financial details of a European soccer-sponsorship deal.” The unofficial reason may have been more comprehensive. GM sales have not responded to his touch. As the L.A. times points out, in the first six months of 2012 GM sold somewhere north of 1.3 million vehicles in the U.S., a mere 4% gain, compared with industry-wide sales growth of 15%. And its share of the U.S. market fell nearly two percent, to 18.1%.

Creativity Matters. Cost cutting isn’t what first thrust Ewanick into the spotlight. Before joining GM he drew attention as the brain behind Hyundai’s “Assurance” program, giving new car buyers the right to return their wheels should they lose their jobs.

That ingenuity is a reason we probably haven’t seen the last of Ewanick. With any luck, he’ll keep on being a good story.

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