Agencies pick over Ewanick’s GM legacy

July 30, 2012

“He failed to meet the expectations that the company has for its employees,” said General Motors spokesman Greg Martin cryptically. That looks like being GM global marketing supremo Joel Ewanick’s epitaph. The marketing whirligig quit abruptly last weekend, after two years at the steering wheel of one of the world’s biggest car companies.

But just what did Martin mean by failed expectations? It appears that Ewanick fell down badly on the small print in the 5-year sponsorship deal he signed with Manchester United. Details remain sketchy, although they will undoubtedly emerge over time. Some financial liability is likely involved should GM fail to deliver on its side of the bargain; this seems to be what Ewanick ‘forgot’ to disclose to his superiors.

GM may be glad to see the back of him, but we hacks will miss Ewanick – with his uncanny ability to manufacture a headline. Here is the man who said ‘No’ to extortionate prime-time Super Bowl advertising; and put two-fingers up to Facebook – commercially speaking – just before it foundered in a very rocky public flotation. The Manchester United sponsorship was to be his masterly counter-coup: Ewanick bringing in the vibrant Old World (China and emerging markets included) to redress a marketing overspend in the tired old New.

Alas, attention to detail seems foreign to Ewanick’s nature. Now we shall never really know whether he was a marketing visionary with a bold grasp of the Big Picture, or simply a publicity-hungry megalomaniac revelling in world-renown.

What matters from here on in is the unpicking of Ewanick’s legacy. Hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue are at stake for the agencies that signed up to the Ewanick dream. Doubtless their lawyers are already assessing the strength of the contracts they co-signed with him. What now for Carat’s tenure of the $3bn global media account? And for Commonwealth, the complex advertising vehicle set up so that Goodby Silverstein and McCann Erickson could jointly service most of the global Chevy creative account? The holding companies of all three agencies – Aegis Group, Omnicom and Interpublic – have already made substantial investments in staffing up in and around Detroit to service the newly streamlined accounts.

Advertising relationships in the auto-industry have traditionally been very personality-driven. Despite a thick coating of metrics-speak in all their public utterances, this has been transcendentally true of Ewanick and his advertising coterie.

Goodby looks particularly vulnerable, given the close personal relationship between Ewanick and Goodby founder Jeff Goodby – who shared the stage at this year’s Cannes International Festival of Creativity.

All eyes will now be on Ewanick’s (at least temporary) successor, Alan Batey, head of US sales and service.

Little is known of him other than that he was once a car mechanic. But of one thing you can be certain. Agencies, on and off the GM roster, will be doing their damnedest to find out more. Just in case.

UPDATE 31/7/12: The problem with the Manchester United shirt sponsorship deal is that Ewanick paid too much, it has emerged. He committed to a 7-year deal at £25m ($39m) a year without disclosing how “full” the terms were to GM’s board. $300m represents a premium of 25% to what the current sponsor, AON, is paying – and is a lot more than Ewanick seems to have implied to his colleagues during negotiation.


Hush my mouth – not ‘Chevy’ but ‘Chevrolet’. Repeat after me, ‘Chev-ro-let’

June 11, 2010

I was tickled to discover General Motors has issued a decree that, heretoafter, the brand formerly known as “Chevy” (as in “levée”) will be called “Chevrolet” and nothing else.

GM decree: No more Chevy at the levée

A po-faced memo, sent to all to all employees working at the megamarque’s Detroit HQ, says: “We’d ask that whether you’re talking to a dealer, reviewing dealer advertising, or speaking with family friends, that you communicate our brand as Chevrolet moving forward.” Then, without a trace of irony, it goes on to observe: “When you look at the most recognized brands throughout the world, such as Coke or Apple for instance, one of the things they all focus on is the consistency of their branding…”

Er, no. Consistency, certainly; but Coke is “Coke” and the “Apple” in “Apple Mac”  is silent.

The memo is signed by Alan Batey, vice president for Chevrolet sales and service, and Jim  Campbell, Chevrolet’s vice president for marketing, but I strongly suspect the influence of  GM’s wunderkind marketing supremo Joel Ewanick, freshly hired from Nissan. Ewanick, it will be recalled, spectacularly fired Publicis Worldwide from the $600m ad account the minute it had won it and installed his old chums from Hyundai days, Goodby Silverstein & Partners, in its place.

Branding by decree never works when what you are up against is the property of popular culture. And Chevy (whoops, a quarter into that Detroit cuss bucket by the water-cooler) – GM’s biggest brand, accounting for 70% of its sales – is very much public property. Need I go further than quote the New York Times here? …”What about rolling back the popular culture references to Chevy? Elton John, Bob Seger, Mötley Crüe and the Beastie Boys have all sung about Chevy, and hip hop artists rap about ‘Chevy Ridin’ High’ or ‘Ridin’ in my Chevy.”” Not merely Don McLean, then.

Just to underline the wrongheadedness of it all, I have a personal anecdote to relate on this very subject. Shortly after he was installed as president of InBev UK and Ireland, Richard Evans tried to address the plummeting brand equity and sales of his company’s flagship product, Stella Artois, by deleting from the record all references to its popular sobriquet “Wife Beater”.

Kowalski: Not Stella

It was, I suppose, a bit mischievous of Marketing Week to run a cover story illustrating the sad decline of this once proud brand with a still taken from A Streetcar Named Desire, featuring Stanley Kowalski (aka Marlon Brando), clad  in “Wife Beater” tee-shirt and wielding a (photo-comped) bottle of the offensively-misnamed brew in his hand. Evans, inevitably perhaps, had a sense of humour loss and threatened to sue over defamation of the brand. A casual search of Google revealed over 1 million references linking Stella Artois to “Wife Beater”, some going back to the Sixties. We heard no more from the other side’s lawyers.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that his run-in with Marketing Week had anything to do with Evans’ precipitate departure from InBev less than two years into the job. Merely that high-handedness and successful branding are not good bedfellows.

UPDATE: Furious back-tracking by senior GM executives, who now realise what a PR blunder they have made. The memo was “poorly worded”, they admit; “We love Chevy. In no way are we discouraging customers or fans from using the name”; But “Chevrolet” will have to stay, otherwise foreigners (?!) won’t understand the brand. Globalisation, just like Marathon and Snickers, eh? Not.  More on the controversy here.


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