Ewanick, 52, a fan of baseball's Boston Red Sox who calls himself a Starbucks junkie on his Twitter page, posted there that he was "fast falling in love with my new home in Detroit." Hyundai's U.S. operations were in Fountain Valley, California; Nissan's are in Franklin, Tennessee.
An early example of Ewanick going around normal channels, one he spoke of frequently in interviews, was a decision to forgo GM's typical process for buying furniture and instead go with bargain retailer Ikea for his office at the company's headquarters, spending $2,000 when he was allowed about $50,000.
Ewanick soon had another run-in with GM procedures. He had to explain one of his first Cadillac sponsorship deals to GM leadership after allegations he cut corners in getting the agreement done outside of GM's usual channels, people familiar with the details said. The contract, with the Northstar-at-Tahoe ski resort in California near Lake Tahoe, was eventually approved, the people said, and the brand is listed on the Web site as the resort's official vehicle. Ewanick owned a home in the area, real-estate records showed.
"While Joel was a risk-taker and big-picture kind of guy, he was not real concerned about the details and that indeed may have been his downfall," said AutoStratagem's Gorrell. "His leaving may suggest that GM will take a more conservative, business-as-usual approach in the future."
GM's momentum continued under Ewanick's stewardship. In 2011, GM leveraged new models such as the Chevrolet Cruze to regain its crown as the world's largest automaker from Toyota as the Japanese company was hobbled by natural disasters in Asia.
Ewanick had also been aggressive behind the scenes. This year, he turned over GM's media planning and buying to Aegis Group Plc's Carat, and Chevy's ad business was assigned to a newly created firm called Commonwealth, a joint venture between Omnicom Group Inc.'s Goodby and McCann Erickson Worldwide, part of Interpublic Group of Cos. Chevrolet, GM's largest brand by unit sales, previously used 70 ad agencies around the world, the carmaker said at the time. GM said the moves would save $2 billion over five years.
Over the last three months, Ewanick made headlines that didn't help his standing. Days before Facebook Inc.'s initial public offering in May, Ewanick told the Wall Street Journal that GM would stop advertising on the social network and questioned its value. The announcement was blamed, in part, for Facebook's rocky offering. The stock stalled on the first day and has lost 45 percent of its value.
Akerson, who also publicly questioned the benefit of Facebook advertising, was unhappy Ewanick talked about the decision to the media, people familiar with the discussion said. In particular, Akerson thought Ewanick had been ungentlemanly in damaging the company's IPO, one of the people said.
A few days later, Ewanick announced GM wouldn't advertise in next year's Super Bowl on CBS, saying it had grown too expensive. The broadcast has gained renewed interest in recent years from rivals, highlighted by Chrysler Group LLC's ads featuring rapper Eminem and actor-director Clint Eastwood.
Then there was the gaffe in June that prompted Akerson to sentence Ewanick to display the Farley award, according to people familiar with the matter.
At the conference in Cannes, Jeff Goodby, who co-founded the joint-venture that does Chevrolet advertising for GM, joked that he would begin by asking Ewanick about his position on Facebook, according to trade publication Advertising Age.
This was just weeks after the dust-up marred the IPO of the California-based-social networking company. "Motherf---er," Ewanick responded with laughter, according to the Advertising Age. "You're gonna pay for this s---."
The playful back-and-fourth continued between the two friends, including Ewanick joking about being willing to give a Goodby competitor advertising without a competitive-bidding process, according to the article.
Ewanick's ultimate undoing with Akerson, though, weren't these missteps, people familiar with the details said.
The defining event was the Manchester United agreement, which Nigel Currie, managing director of London-based marketing adviser BrandRapport UK, said set a record for a soccer sponsorship.
In 1999, when Manchester United won the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League, electronics company Sharp Corp. sponsored the team for only 850,000 pounds ($1.3 million) a year, said Currie. The next year, Vodafone Group Plc took over, paying an average of 8 million pounds a year, which was considered "incredible," said Currie, who helped negotiate the deal as an adviser to Vodafone. And the price kept climbing. Insurance company American International Group Inc. took over in 2006 for about 14 million pounds a year, Currie said, and Aon Corp. now pays 20 million pounds a year.