In escalation of rivalry, Ford hires former GM executive

July 31, 2012, 5:14 PM UTC

Ford Motor Co. is escalating its long-standing rivalry with General Motors. Ford’s advertising agency, Team Detroit, a unit of Great Britain’s WPP PLC, is planning to install Mark LaNeve as its chief operating officer. LaNeve, 53, was a long-time GM executive who left in the wake of the company’s 2009 bankruptcy.

LaNeve, who worked until February as chief marketing officer for Northbrook, Illinois-based Allstate Corp. (ALL), will serve as No. 2 to Satish Korde, Team Detroit’s chief executive officer. He will occupy a key post commanding Ford’s (F) marketing initiatives worldwide, according to sources close to the company. A Ford spokesperson was not immediately available to provide comment.

LaNeve’s appointment represents the second major power realignment in Detroit in a matter of days, coming on the heels of the abrupt resignation of GM’s (GM) CMO Joel Ewanick on Sunday. Sources close to GM claim that “improprieties” in connection with a marketing agreement between its Chevrolet brand and the Manchester United soccer team led to Ewanick’s ouster. Ewanick has declined comment.

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The top-level personnel moves highlight the growing confrontation between Ford and GM, as automakers claw their way back from the lows of the financial crisis. More than ever, America’s two top domestic automakers find themselves fighting each other in vital markets around the globe, from California to Calcutta. GM ranks number one in U.S. sales, with Ford behind it. Globally, GM competes with Toyota and Volkswagen for the top spot. Ford is in the top six.

Top marketing executives capable of effectively deploying multi-billion advertising and promotional budgets worldwide appear to now be taking center stage in that struggle. GM, still 26%-owned by the U.S., finds itself without a leader, at least temporarily. Ford, meanwhile, has recruited a onetime GM executive who is conversant with his former employer’s — now adversary’s — culture and tactics. Ford has also hired at least three former GM public relations executives to work for its agencies.

Jim Farley, Ford’s chief marketer who was recruited from Toyota (TM) by executive chairman Bill Ford Jr., has been scathing in his disdain for GM. Farley was quoted in New York Times reporter Bill Vlasic’s 2011 book Once Upon A Car, chronicling the collapse of Detroit automaking in 2008 and 2009 saying that “[what he] really wanted to do was kick the daylights out of General Motors. ‘I’m going to beat Chevrolet on the head with bat,’ he said with a slightly wicked smile. ‘And I’m going to enjoy it.'” (Later Farley told reporters he had called Ewanick to apologize.)

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Mark LaNeve.

LaNeve, who earlier in his career worked for Volvo, including a period when the Swedish company was owned by Ford, made his reputation mostly at Cadillac, eventually running the GM luxury brand. He was integral to the development and 2002 introduction of the Cadillac CTS sedan, a model that provided a toehold for the brand’s turnaround in the U.S. The CTS was the precursor to the XTS and ATS models introduced this year. LaNeve was also extremely popular with GM dealers, many of whom also own Ford franchises.

Ford is likely to draw on LaNeve’s experience as a marketer of luxury automobiles in an attempt to fortify and revive its floundering Lincoln franchise. The former GM marketing executive will be helping a car company that badly needs a luxury strategy, as well as to broaden its marketing base in China, where it was late in establishing partnerships. GM is ahead with its Cadillac and Buick brands in that rapidly growing market.

LaNeve will have his work cut out for him. Earlier this year, GM Chief Executive Dan Akerson was asked by a Detroit newspaper about Ford’s Lincoln brand, whose sales have flagged for years. He didn’t hold back. “They are trying like hell to resurrect Lincoln. Well, I might as well tell you, you might as well sprinkle holy water. It’s over,” Mr. Akerson said.

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The father of twin autistic sons, LaNeve commuted weekly to Allstate headquarters for two years prior to leaving that post and returning to the Detroit area to work as a consultant. LaNeve’s start date is expected to be announced shortly.