In 2009, in the midst of a global recession and one of the worst periods in automotive history, Joel Ewanick was at the top of the world; yesterday, with sales back on track, he was ousted at General Motors.GM is the U.S.’s second largest advertiser (P&G is the first), and Ewanick controlled at least $1.9 billion in ad spending in America.
Ewanick, who had previously worked at Porsche, Yamaha, and Saatchi & Saatchi overseeing the Lexus account, was once the vp of marketing for South Korean automaker Hyundai—arguably the hottest car brand of 2009.
The largely unheralded Korean automaker posted gigantic sales numbers while the rest of the industry was collectively in turmoil. Success came thanks to a complete revamp of the portfolio, improvement in quality, and aggressive brand awareness through a series of campaigns which Ewanick oversaw.
Quite simply, Ewanick—at Hyundai—was the hottest name in the automotive industry. In March of 2010, Ewanick left Hyundai, ending up at General Motors, where he has been the centre of some of the most controversial recent decisions in the automotive and advertising worlds.
From 1990-1998 Ewanick was the general manager of marketing for Porsche Cars North America. In 1999 he joined The Hinckley Company/Monitor Clipper, where he would eventually oversee the Hyundai account. He would then follow Hyundai account to the Dallas-based Richards Group agency, the before leaving in 2007 to take the vp of marketing position at Hyundai.
In January, Hyundai kicked off its Hyundai Assurance program -- it was a huge success. The concept was simple, buy a Hyundai and if you lose your job in the next 12 months you can return the car and not have to make another payment.
It raised brand awareness (and fewer than 100 people actually returned the car). In the summer, the Assurance Gas Lock was added, which gave customers $1.49 gas for a year. These programs, along with new models like the Genesis, propelled Hyundai to gigantic profits in the midst of the worst economic times for automakers. Hyundai was one of three automakers to post positive year-to-year daily sale rate.
On March 18, 2010, Ewanick left for Nissan; 48 days later he was named vp of U.S. marketing for GM. There's a lot of speculation about what went on at Nissan, but according to some sources, Nissan was Ewanick's second choice to GM.
In addition, the numbers-centric Nissan was probably not the best place for Ewanick. There were also murmurs GM offered Ewanick a job prior to his tenure at Nissan, but with more restrictions than he would have liked.
To this day, it's difficult to figure out what Ewanick did in his less than 50-day tenure at Nissan.
Lutz was the former vice chairman of GM and for much of the 2000s served as the face of GM to the public. While Ewanick wasn't as public, he did continue some interactions with the public, including open forums on Jalopnik. In May of 2011, he famously stated that if 100,000 people told him they wanted the El Camino back--he'd bring it back. The post on Jalopnik didn't surpass 5,000 comments.
Ewanick conducted a review of GM's massive advertising account last year. There were some good parts, particularly his honesty regarding the problems with the current state of things for GM, and there were a lot of head-scratching moments.
After five months, Ewanick said, 'No one out there knows anything. They think they do. But it can change tomorrow. I went to bed last night, and changed my mind.' That was an odd statement for a man who held the jobs of thousands of agency executives in his hands.
In the end, GM condensed 90 different agencies into three: Goodby, Silverstein & Partners; McCann Erickson; and Carat. The former pair created 'Commonwealth'--a joint venture created solely to handle Chevrolet at the request of Ewanick.
As BI noted at the time, it looked awkward:
'Jeff Goodby is supposed to sit across the table from three McCann bigwigs (Linus Karlsson, Prasoon Joshi and Washington Olivetto) and make nice as if nothing unusual is going on.'
The purpose of the review was to cut $2 billion in marketing spending over the next five years.
He made the move the same week as Facebook's IPO. While the $10 million was a relatively small part of GM's ad budget and Facebook's billion dollar quarterly ad sales, the claim from a company like GM that the ads didn't work started a gigantic debate.
Facebook execs were furious and sources described GM's strategy as 'mental.'
That Friday, Ewanick announced GM would not be taking any Super Bowl TV ads next year. The reason was the same -- Super Bowl ads don't work. The rising costs ($4 million + per spot) and lack of effectiveness for GM was enough for Ewanick.
It was Ewanick's second massive decision in a week.
A day after Ewanick was ousted, his successor announced a new shirtfront sponsorship deal with Manchester United. Such deals are among the most expensive in all of sports; Man U's shirt last went for £20 million a year.
The Wall Street Journal reported a soccer deal was the trigger for Ewanick's exit:
GM told Mr. Ewanick that he was being removed for failing to properly vet the financial details of a European soccer-sponsorship deal that he struck recently, according to people familiar with the matter.
While he formally resigned, it was clear he was ousted. A GM spokesperson told Automotive News, 'he failed to meet the expectations the company has of an employee.' Ewanick made a lot of news, but in 2012 none of it seemed to be positive.
Ewanick made a lot of bold moves at Hyundai; he also had quality products that shocked the world. At GM, that excitement over the products just wasn't there. Case-in-point, GM's most exciting vehicle, the heavily-promoted Chevrolet Volt. Sales missed targets, but the car was on fire.
We may never know the real reason Ewanick left. One thing is for sure--his tenure wasn't boring.
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