Joel Ewanick’s sudden exit from GM shows the perils of the CMO danger zone

The departure of Joel Ewanick as CMO of General Motors (pictured) is a sudden and unexpected move not helped by the comment from GM: “.. he failed to meet the expectations that a company has of an employee.” Hmmm, not sure what that is code for.

I do not have the remotest clue about why this has happened but he certainly created waves by his moves at GM such as firing dozens of ad agencies, creating Commonwealth and handing $billions of media to Carat. Maybe too much too soon, maybe the cult of the personality rather than that of the company, maybe Mark Zuckerberg’s connections proved influential following GM’s pubic announcement that it was cancelling all of its Facebook budget a week before the IPO. Who knows?

Over the years I have worked with a variety of CMOs from the good, the bad to the ugly. Looking out from the advertising side of the equation I suspect most marketing directors don’t really know what their agency teams really think of them; most intelligent agency folk just get on with the cards they are dealt and, like good brag players, bluff it out irrespective of how rubbish their hand is.

Also reputations do the rounds fairly quickly and agency folk from different agencies will compare notes. A close friend was approached recently for a very senior job with a global brand following the appointment of the global CMO. I was asked what I thought and I suggested caution but to call a few more people. I picked the heads of three agencies the new CMO had worked with in previous roles. The opinion was unanimous, the person concerned was to be avoided at all costs. My friend withdrew from the candidate short list.

I believe the key test is working out where the power lies; is it the company or the individual? When I worked for Cadbury as a brand manager the company was the dominant force in a good way. To get any new initiative approved the marketing person needed to present the case to a sales and marketing committee made up of senior management. It was a very good mechanism as it had checks and balances to ensure a maverick brand manager didn’t go awol with the crown jewells. Neither did it stifle innovative, creative ideas. Cadbury was, and I’m sure still is, a marketing savvy company at the very top of the business.

However I have worked with different kinds of organisations where marketing is not core to the DNA of the business, which can leave the marketing head with far more latitude. This is when things can go off piste due to the lack of internal tramlines created to keep the public expression of the brand consistent.

In the case of GM I can imagine the board would be very focused on manufacturing, sourcing, finance, etc., i.e. crucial operational issues, leaving the marketing person alone to get on with effectively non-operational stuff. It’s the same with airlines, trains, insurance, banking, utilities, anything where the operational side of the business is complex, specialist, capital intensive and, in many cases, where safety and/or compliance are critical.

It’s not impossible though. A business that is operationally driven but with consistent brand management is Virgin Atlantic. Steve Ridgeway (left), the CEO, has been there for at least 20 years in a variety of roles and I’m sure with a firm hand on the marketing tiller. He was marketing director in the mid-90s and a charming client. A good exception to the rule.

Whatever the reasons that lie behind Mr. Ewanick’s departure from GM it is a good example of how a high profile marketing role can be a dangerous one. As someone once said “be careful what you wish for.” There is no doubt that too much profile for the marketing head can be a step too far for some companies.

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About Paul Simons

Paul joined Cadbury-Schweppes in brand management and then moved to United Biscuits. He switched to advertising in his late 20s, at Cogent Elliott and then Gold Greenlees Trott. He founded Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson in the late 80s, one of the leading creative agencies of the 90s. Simons Palmer then merged with TBWA to create a top ten agency. Paul then joined O&M as chairman & CEO of the UK group. After three years he left to create a new AIM-quoted advertising group Cagney Plc. He is now a consultant to a number of client companies. Paul also shares his thoughts on his blog. Visit Paul Simons Blog.