From Bold to Bounced: Lessons from the Fall of GM’s Marketing Chief
By Bob and Gregg Vanourek, Co-authors of “Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations“
Are you a courageous communications professional? A maverick marketer? PR pioneer? Or do you aspire to be? Great. Our world needs mavericks to shake things up and break through barriers. But not at all costs.
What lessons can we learn from the rise and sudden fall of General Motors’ bold marketing chief, Joel Ewanick, who was recently (and abruptly) bounced from the company? A lot. And these takeaways could save your job—and reputation.
Ewanick joined GM with great fanfare in 2010 after swashbuckling to fame as vice president for marketing at Hyundai Motor America, where he conceived highly successful programs such as the Hyundai Assurance Program, wherein buyers who lost their jobs could return their vehicles without penalty. It was bold and fresh, and Hyundai was one of only three automakers to post sales increases during the recent auto market implosion.
After GM filed for bankruptcy and received a bailout from Uncle Sam, the humbled giant needed bold, imaginative programs. Ewanick delivered.
In his first year, he overhauled GM’s century-old marketing infrastructure, facilitating the merger of two former ad rivals into a new Detroit-based agency called Commonwealth.
Given GM’s cost-cutting imperative, Ewanick carved $2 billion from the company’s five-year marketing plan, ditching expensive Super Bowl ads and halting advertising on Facebook right before its initial public offering, bringing howls of protest. He launched the “Chevy Runs Deep” ad campaign and engineered the Chevy “Love It or Return It” campaign, allowing buyers to return cars by Labor Day if they were not satisfied.
Bold moves, indeed. So what happened to the marketing maverick?
With Toyota and Chrysler posting big sales gains, GM’s market share fell from 19.9% in the first half of 2011 to 18.1% in the first half of 2012. A big drop, surely, but how much of that is due to advertising versus product issues? Did that lead to his ouster? Our take: you don’t summarily dismiss a senior marketing exec for that kind of share decline. Demotion or reassignment, likely, but probably not an abrupt firing.
Ewanick was recently taken to task by his CEO, Dan Akerson, a Navy vet, for public profanity at a Cannes event. Bad judgment, but not the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
Ewanick reportedly had tensions with other GM senior execs and was publicly sparring with one about the Facebook decision. (See http://www.freep.com/article/20120809/BUSINESS01/308090165/Soccer-team-deal-s-cost-doomed-GM-marketing-chief-Joel-Ewanick.) No firing offense there.
One of Ewanick’s bold moves was an expensive soccer sponsorship with Manchester United in the U.K. Commentators noted that he did not “properly vet the finances” involved. Here we arrive at the crux of the matter.
Bloomberg News reported that Ewanick spread the cost of the Manchester deal among separate budgets to downplay its true cost. That reeks of purposeful deception—strategic misdirection to get a favored project approved despite the company’s cost-cutting parameters. A whistleblower brought this to the attention of senior management, Ewanick denied it, then summarily “elected to resign” (almost certainly in the face of termination). There’s the rub, in our view.
We suspect Ewanick got bounced because he went beyond GM’s ethical boundaries, obfuscating the cost of a deal. When the CEO found out, game over. According to the Detroit Free Press, “GM sources say Ewanick’s firing was an ethical issue that had nothing to do with the overall performance of GM’s sales in the U.S. or overseas. What Ewanick did would have resulted in anyone’s firing, one source said.”
As we outline in our new book, Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, organizations need mavericks. Mavericks are independent innovators or performers, often exceptional and quirky, who do not easily run with the others. Mavericks often generate breakthrough ideas. Leaders must protect mavericks—as long as they act in accordance with the organization’s values .
One of GM’s five principles is delivering long-term investment value by “operating with the highest level of integrity.” (See http://www.gm.com/company/aboutGM/our_company.html.) According to Advertising Age, company spokesman Greg Martin told Automotive News that Ewanick “failed to meet the expectations the company has of an employee.”
We believe there are important lessons aspiring marketing and communications mavericks can learn from this cautionary case:
- Indeed, be bold and audacious
- Push the boundaries
- But never violate ethical boundaries
Even high performers should be removed from organizations if they cannot operate with integrity. Mavericks can survive dud ad campaigns and slipping market share, but not ethical violations. Mavericks can be dynamic game-changers, but they must contribute to building what we call a “culture of character.” Otherwise, even the bold get bounced.
Bob and Gregg Vanourek are the co-authors of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring organizations (McGraw-Hill). Web: http://triplecrownleadership.com/ Twitter: @TripleCrownLead