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EX GM Exec Says the Automaker Has Toxic Marketing Culture

Mike Jackson, the former head of corporate advertising at GM, tells it like it is at GM in a column he penned for Automotive News.

I could have blogged in this at out AutoBeat blog. But I decided to put it here because what he says about GM could very well be the case at other companies that rely on advertising and marketing to move consumer goods.

Here is the key part:

At GM, there is a bias against outsiders, especially those without automotive experience. But to do what is needed, GM again must look outside the organization.

Ten years ago, I was brought into GM as part of a major reorganization led by Rick Wagoner and Ron Zarrella. Wagoner was a great leader with global experience committed to lead a new GM. Zarrella was a visionary marketer committed to making GM brands relevant to American consumers.

It was a strong team. Also recruited from outside were such executives as Paul Ballew, Roger Adams, CJ Fraleigh and Debra Kelly-Ennis. We were charged with revitalizing U.S. sales and marketing efforts.

At first things went well. We earned the respect of those in the organization who embraced the vision and yearned to create a different culture. Veteran leaders such as Bill Lovejoy, Kurt Ritter and Lynn Myers provided support, guidance and experience. Under Lovejoy?? leadership, there was passion and enthusiasm, and we seemed to be gaining momentum.

We were close to changing the culture and achieving outstanding business results. But when Lovejoy retired at the end of 2002, the GM lifers once again assumed control.

Immediately there was talk of returning to the good old days of a command-and-control culture in which a chosen few made every decision. Their tactics were simple: focus on getting dealers to take inventory and launch an incentive program every month. Programs such as Employee Pricing for All and Standards for Excellence infuriated the dealers and alienated consumers.

Eventually, many of us who were supposed to be agents of change got frustrated and left GM and the auto business.

-- Challenge American consumers by being inclusive and give them the cars and trucks that they want.

-- Treat dealers, ad agencies, media companies and suppliers as partners, not vendors. The days of big, bad GM and the old our-way-or-the-highway attitude are over. The new GM must value and leverage its partners or replace them with partners who embody the new culture.

This is not as complicated as it might seem to those who worked at the old GM. President Barack Obama has provided a lifeline from the American taxpayer. The automotive task force is addressing the difficult and painful structural issues. The UAW and the dealers have made major concessions. American consumers have been patient and supportive. Now GM's senior leaders must seize this opportunity to overhaul the culture once and for all.

With fresh leadership, a new GM will emerge and prosper.

One of the things Jackson rails against, too, is the system that has put finance and engineering execs into advertising and marketing jobs. These folks don?? know anything about what they are doing. It?? just their turn. So, they take the advice from their promoters not to rock the boat. And they lean on ad agencies that are more interested in selling work than creating great work.

This is why as GM has brought some terrific agencies like Goodby Silverstein and Partners and Deutsch/LA into the fold, the work these agencies create is never as good as what they do for other clients. It gets processed like Kraft cheese.

It?? hard to know if Jackson, during his time, was part of the problem. Certainly, there was little remarkable generated by GM while he was in charge. But since the points he articulates are ones I have observed myself over two decades, I??l give him the benefit of the doubt that he was trying to create positive change and was thwarted.

With Saturn, Saab, Hummer and Pontiac melting away from GM, I suspect, though can?? confirm, that there will be shake-up at GM in the marketing ranks and among the ad agencies. Even the private equity guys on the White House task force, the one that fired GM CEO Rick Wagoner, told new CEO Fritz Henderson that the marketing system and processes at GM need to be chucked out.

That probably means a realignment of ad agencies, as well as new blood inside GM?? ranks.

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