Controversial deal led to GM marketing chief’s ouster

July 30, 2012, 4:00 PM UTC

A marketing tie-up between General Motors Co.’s Chevrolet brand and the Manchester United soccer club led to the ouster of Joel Ewanick, GM’s global marketing chief.

A source who declined to be named citing the legalities of Ewanick’s abrupt departure, said GM (GM) senior management had identified “improprieties” in connection with the Manchester United deal announced in late May. The source declined to discuss nature of the impropriety. A GM spokesman, Greg Martin, said Ewanick’s job performance hadn’t met the company’s expectations. Ewanick resigned on Sunday. He declined to comment.

Ewanick’s sudden departure is a stunning reversal of fortune for a quickly rising executive given a mandate to shake up a stodgy giant. The hasty timing and vague reasoning recall the fate of another high-flying marketing executive, Julie Roehm, who shook up Chrysler but found herself embroiled in controversy at her next employer, Wal-Mart (WMT). (The finer details of the two cases differ, of course.)

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GM is in the midst of rebranding its four remaining American vehicle lines — Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick and GMC — following its 2009 bankruptcy and reorganization by the U.S. Treasury. GM executives say Ewanick provided imaginative and unconventional leadership that challenged staid notions of automotive advertising and marketing. His moves to suspend paid advertising on Facebook (FB) and skip the 2013 Super Bowl because of costly rates generated headlines and controversy. In the past, GM spent enormous sums to support the myriad programs, promotions and sponsorships of its many, overlapping brands.

The Manchester United initiative was conceived to help Chevrolet become a global brand, rather than dominant in only North America. With its German Opel brand in trouble in Europe and a growing market of first-time buyers in the People’s Republic of China, Ewanick’s team wanted to make a concerted effort to reach soccer fans, the world’s largest audience for a team sport. Chevy’s bow-tie logo will begin appearing at Manchester United matches; GM also has agreed to sponsor a Chevrolet Cup soccer match in China.

For the time being, the sales and marketing executives for GM’s vehicle lines will pick up the slack left with the exit of Ewanick, 52. Alan Batey, 49, U.S. sales and service chief will also assume Ewanick’s duties on an interim basis.

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Ewanick rose swiftly over the course of the past three years from marketing chief at Hyundai to the same position at Nissan (NSANY), where he was plucked in 2010 by GM before he could even get started. Daniel Akerson, GM chief executive, promoted him from North American marketing head to global executive in charge of all brands, supervising the world’s largest advertising budget, estimated by some to be $4.5 billion. Akerson has shaken GM’s management ranks, forcing out longtime executives in the name of instilling “urgency” into the company, which is 26%-owned by the U.S.

A native of the Los Angeles area, Ewanick gained attention at Hyundai following the 2008 financial crisis. He helped devise a “Hyundai Assurance” program, an offer in which the company would buy back new vehicles in the event a consumer lost his or her job,. Though the program didn’t cost much, it helped Hyundai dealers in the U.S. close deals, resulting in more market share for the South Korean automaker.

Within the past month Akerson praised Ewanick’s work and publicly rated his job performance as “good.” The sequence of events and Akerson’s utterances suggest that the Manchester United episode unfolded and was resolved swiftly — with little or no consideration to reprimand Ewanick, while allowing him to stay on the job. So far GM is declining to provide further details.

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As is customary in the automobile business, Ewanick likely received a financial package in return for his resignation, stipulating that he can’t work for a competitor. The agreement won’t stop him from appearing somewhere else in the advertising or corporate marketing frontier.