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Exec who pulled Facebook ads out at General Motors

Joel Ewanick, the agent of change brought in by General Motors just over two years ago to shake up its moribund marketing operations, has unexpectedly resigned.

In a terse statement issued Sunday evening the maker said only that the 52-year-old executive “has elected to resign immediately.” Alan Batey, GM’s vice president of U.S. Sales and Service, will step in as global marketing chief on an interim basis.

Exactly what led to Ewanick’s sudden departure isn’t clear but it takes even those working close to the marketing czar by surprise.  In fact, it appears to have taken Ewanick himself by surprise.  The former Hyundai marketing chief appeared on the Internet TV show Autoline After Hours barely a week ago and it was clear, “This was not a guy who saw this coming,” said host John McElroy.

A report in the online edition of the Wall Street Journal suggests the departure was a result of an unspecified confrontation between Ewanick and GM Chairman and CEO Dan Akerson and, according to several sources, as recently as this morning it was under discussion whether the marketing chief’s departure would be described as voluntary or if GM would say he had been terminated.

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With his departure it is likely that GM’s marketing efforts will again fall under close scrutiny -- all the more so when, as expected, the company next week reports a massive slump in earnings for the second quarter. 

“Dan Akerson is coming under intense scrutiny,” said long-time automotive analyst McElroy. Another source, asking not to be identified by name, put it more bluntly: “People will be asking how did that guy ever get that job?”

The former telecommunications chief was given the CEO title barely a year after GM’s emergence from Chapter 11 when Ed Whitacre -- who took over the reorganized company -- decided to step down. Akerson quickly positioned himself as a hard-driving change agent ousting virtually all of GM’s old guard and bringing in an assortment of new talent including Ewanick. 

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The boyish marketing chief had built a strong reputation helping turn around a company that had a poor reputation with buyers other than those on a tight budget. By the time he left, Hyundai had become one of the country’s fastest-growing automotive brands. 

Ewanick did a brief stint at Nissan in early 2010, apparently because GM couldn’t complete the hiring process.  When it came back with the right offer he jumped ship again.

Since then, Ewanick has shown a willingness to slaughter even the most sacred cows, terminating long-time relationships, such as the decades-long alliance between the Chevrolet brand and Detroit ad agency Campbell-Ewald.  Earlier this year, he rocked the ad world by announcing GM would pull out of the 2013 Super Bowl and by almost simultaneously deciding to pull its $10 million Facebook ad account.

Those moves triggered angry responses, Facebook management, for example, going directly to Akerson hoping to reverse the embarrassing decision -- which became fodder for headlines just days before the social media site’s disastrous IPO.

Not everyone has been impressed.  “I just don’t see the work,” said a senior Detroit ad agency executive asking not to be named.  The exec pointed to a series of ads produced under Ewanick’s tenure that could hardly be differentiated from what the Chevy brand aired prior to the marketing shake-up.

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But others defend Ewanick’s work, including McElroy: “What you have to do is judge results. The question is whether Joel Ewanick has done a good job of taking the Chevrolet and Cadillac brands global. Chevy set a sales record last year and last month Malibu nearly outsold Camry while the new Sonic (subcompact) has done a real good job at the small end.”

But Ewanick was also in charge of marketing abroad and GM is having a disastrous time in Europe, where it is expected to post several billion dollars in losses this year.

That has led to a series of additional personnel moves including the recent ouster of GM Europe CEO Karl-Friedrich Stracke and several of his top lieutenants.

But the shake-ups have been coming at home, as well.  In recent weeks a number of well-known executive have resigned or retired, including Chevy Volt program chief Tony Posawatz, Cadillac’s vehicle chief Dave Leone, and David Lyon, who was set to head design for German-based Opel.

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Nonetheless, “The timing of this (Ewanick’s departure) is very strange,” said Rebecca Lindland, chief analyst with IHS Automotive, “coming on Sunday rather than waiting until next week when they have a conference call to announce the monthly sales numbers.”

Lindland and several other observers contacted by TheDetroitBureau.com said another odd sign was the fact that normally knowledgeable inside company sources admitted being completely in the dark about the latest development.  Even the normally in-tune GM PR department was apparently caught by surprise.

One source indicated that it was only decided hours before a press release finally went out that Ewanick’s departure would be described as a “voluntary” resignation.  That, said several observers, raises questions about whether there was more behind the departure than simply a disagreement over policy. 

Going forward, it remains to be seen what sort of ripple effect Ewanick’s resignation will have.  Chris Perry, one of his top lieutenants from Hyundai came over to GM to run the Chevrolet brand.  Meanwhile, the entire General Motors marketing operation has been reshaped in Ewanick’s image, including a controversial new entity combining teams from several different major ad agencies put together to handle the Chevy account.

It’s clear that the impact of the Sunday announcement will be felt and analyzed for some time to come.

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