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Latest GM shuffle bids to break bad ad-itudes

May 6, 2010

Latest GM shuffle bids to break bad ad-itudes


Mark Reuss isn’t messing around.

For the second time in less than three months, the president of General Motors North America is shuffling his marketing leadership — and, in the process, ending an era renowned more for overpromising market success and then chronically under-delivering.

Susan Docherty, 47, is out as vice president of U.S. marketing and Joel Ewanick, 49, most recently of Nissan North America, is in. Off and on for months, the move is a calculated play for fresh eyes to help exorcise bad old habits of the past and take advantage of GM’s vastly improved product line and new lease on life.

Reuss "wanted an outsider," a GM executive familiar with the situation told me Wednesday, adding that CEO Ed Whitacre "didn’t have anything to do with this. This was Mark’s call. At the end of the day, it’s Mark’s (butt) that’s on the line."

His isn’t the only one, evidently. Back in January, Docherty urged folks to judge her tenure by the sales performance of the Cadillac CTS, a suite of entry-level luxury cars that is deservedly winning critical acclaim but still isn’t catching fire with American car buyers.

In April, CTS sales were off 15.4 percent from the year before, according to Autodata Inc., and 21 percent year-to-date — among the weakest performance, percentage-wise, in the whole Cadillac lineup. That’s a problem, however much of it may be attributable to stiff competition from Audi, Lexus, BMW and Mercedes-Benz or the "Government Motors" rap.

It’s also an opportunity. GM’s new leadership — from Reuss and Whitacre to directors recruited by the Obama auto task force — long has been dissatisfied with the automaker’s marketing, a crucial weapon in the battle to woo new customers, to keep existing ones and to bolster the bottom line.

Meaning that, in retrospect, Docherty was pretty much in the same position as the guy who promoted her back last October — former CEO Fritz Henderson. He held the top job but, in fact, it probably never really was his barring the kind of super-human performance that mostly isn’t possible in corporate America, be it as a CEO or a head of marketing a consumer product.

GM’s four core brands — Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac and GMC — still struggle for definition in the market, despite fielding some of the best products in decades. Ad campaigns too often focused on ancillary story lines and focus-grouped lifestyle plays (such as the lame Buick ad of a director shooting a Buick ad) instead of the hardware.

"For decades, we directed ads at the lowest common denominator and not saying too much about the product," Bob Lutz, GM’s recently retired product and marketing impresario, told me last September. "The ads have to be aspirational.

"I was ready to move over to marketing and fire a bunch of agencies. It wasn’t our agencies, it was us — our requirements, our procedures, our own attitudes" that undermined GM’s message and its products.

Replacing Docherty with Ewanick is a bid to break that cycle even as it hews to a script being reprised with regularity. Long-time insiders are running GM’s core design, engineering, manufacturing and purchasing operations, but outsiders are recruited to run the softer side of the business that interfaces with influential constituencies — finance, communications, government affairs and now marketing in the United States.

The surprise, to the extent there is one, is that this is a surprise. On March 31, Whitacre used an e-mail to tell GM executives that "major leadership changes are behind us" and that the "team we have in place today is the team that will take us forward."

He also wrote, according to individuals who have read the e-mail, that additional personnel moves — below the level of GM’s 13-member Executive Committee — could occur. Which might be considered scant justification to those who see a CEO saying one thing and doing another.

Debatable? Yes. A shot to the credibility of Reuss and Whitacre? Depends. An obvious fact is that GM’s new leadership clearly is willing to do what so many before them seldom were: Hold senior executives accountable for results and then make a change when they don’t deliver.

That can cause more churn and uncertainty. But it can also reap the results that can help change GM’s culture and its image — which is the point.

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