GM would like to blame all its sales and marketing woes on former CMO Joel Ewanick - but maybe it needs to point elsewhere, says columnist Bernstein.

The advertising business is loaded with cliches but perhaps the most pertinent is, “An agency is only as good as the client lets it be!” Yet, when the ads aren’t working it never turns out to be the clients fault, it’s always the agency’s.  Ha! It is the client who establishes the marketing goals and objectives, often in a vacuum of reality, understanding and experience.

And then there’s the wonderful phrase, “We have a strong agency – client relationship!” Double-Ha! That’s the kiss of death. There is no such thing as a long lasting agency/client relationship. At best it is confrontational, more likely acrimonious and seldom harmonious.

The ad agency news this week emanating from General Motors’ Renaissance Center headquarters makes the political mess in Washington seem almost trivial, doesn’t it? The rather nasty innuendos and evil repercussions are intended to put the blame on one person, Joel Ewanick, which is a crock. True, as global Chief Marketing Officer, Ewanick had plenipotentiary powers bestowed on him by the CEO and board of directors. But the marketing ship was already floundering with its sails and rudders gone and no captain. And it’s unclear anyone really wanted Ewanick to do what was necessary to make GM’s marketing operations ship-shape.

Let’s be totally realistic and brutally frank, the cars, trucks, SUVs, CUVs in the GM fleet, post-bankruptcy, were not all that good, and that’s being kind. The once-august and mighty brands were bereft of status, reputation and cache. GM was saved by the largess of U.S. taxpayers. Then-new top Management had decided — declared — the Volt was the answer. Oops. The peripatetic Ewanick was hired to shake things up. And did he ever.

Certainly some of his ideas were counterculture — some outright revolutionary — to the timid, tired and tepid direction GM followed after the bankruptcy. Long-serving agencies like Campbell-Ewald were fired, some justifiably. New shops were hired based on reputations or familiarity. Campaigns were dumped, people fired, suppliers changed, offices closed, staffs reduced. Morale, however, also sucked.

But then, product quality slowly began to improve as new designs were implemented. Times appeared to be improving. Sort of. Big bucks were expended for Chevy, almost $1 billion in media spending, with Cadillac in the $250 million stratosphere. For the bean counters brought in to run GM after Chapter 11, it was cash management would rather spend elsewhere where it could be quantified for ROI — which is elusive in marketing, even with the most sophisticated metrics.

Truth be told, not all of Ewanick’s plans and programs worked. Some were disasters. It was a work in process on a worldwide basis.  In hindsight, it was probably too big a job for one person – which may be why GM has hired Tim Mahoney, formerly of Subaru and Volkswagen, to focus solely on the Chevrolet account. Then, on a warm summer day it was suddenly over.  Ewanick was left twisting in the wind for never completely explained transgressions.

Obviously there was no marketing oversight.

In the months following the exodus the situation has become a corporate marketing nightmare of poorly planned creative platforms that ignored the customer for two key brands. Case in point the Cadillac ATX — a BMW 3-series wannabe — that is a sensational car with pathetic advertising that failed to burnish the once vaunted brand with cache and sophistication.

The ATS is an American luxury sport sedan for people who do not want Teutonic heritage and can afford to spend the bucks for a softer more comfortable ride. Yet this was ignored. Result? TV viewers discovered a new sedan on a crazed drive through the streets of Monaco, or hurtling down a goat path in Outer Mongolia.

The initial ad blitz, launched with much fanfare during the Summer Olympics, seemed to generate little momentum.  The ATS is finally selling well, but largely despite the advertising, good reviews and word of mouth helping it connect with buyers.

The bow-tie brand’s American heritage was diminished with first one bad slogan that was recently replaced with another of dubious distinction. Slogans do not sell cars! Cars are a bifurcated purchase: one half emotional, the other rational. Ignoring both is a failure of direction. But it’s the client who sets the direction, right … assuming there is a direction.

Buick’s campaigns are a deep, dark mystery with an appalling lack of consistency and focus, GMC an invisible brand in a very visible, vocal competitive world.

We’ve just seen the launch of a new ad campaign from Buick that effectively revisits Jurassic Park. Meanwhile, we’re waiting to get final word on what everyone knows: Chevy and Caddy will soon have new agencies. Or, more precisely, old ones.  Former Buick/GMC agency McCann Erickson will be taking over at Chevrolet, while Chevy’s decades-long partner Campbell-Ewald will begin Cadillac’s agency of record.

So, now it’s out with the new and in with the old. That’s truly a brilliant strategy. What does GM need? The worldwide marketing CMO idea didn’t work. What will? Chrysler, the other formerly bankrupt company seems to have a clear-eyed focus, direction and purpose that is resonating with consumers based on product. What generated this marketing phenomena? Therein lies the answer.

Could it be a visionary view from a czar of marketing with top management encouragement, faith and support? Not a revolving door of executives and advertising agencies. Maybe GM’s board should look unto itself for the answer.

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