The CMO danger zone

The departure of Joel Ewanick as CMO of General Motors appears to be a sudden and unexpected move not helped by the comment from GM “… he failed 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 around his moves on behalf of 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 Zuckerman’s connections being more influential following GM’s pubic announcement cancelling all of the their Facebook budget a week before the IPO. Who knows?

Over the years I have worked with a variety of CMO’s from the good, the bad and 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 with and like good brag players bluff it irrespective 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 my views 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 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 saavy 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 tram lines 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.

I would suggest a business that is operationally driven but with consistent brand management is Virgin Atlantic. Steve Ridgeway, 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-90’s 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 where a high profile marketing role can be a dangerous one. As someone once said ‘be careful what you wish for’ as there is no doubt too much profile for the marketing head can be a step too far for some companies.



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