Mars CMO Bruce McColl: 'Hiring talent is one of our biggest challenges'
By Noelle McElhatton, marketingmagazine.co.uk, Thursday, 19 July 2012 11:00AM
Mars' chief marketer, in Cannes to receive the Advertiser of the Year award, tells Marketing how the brand owner's devolved structure facilitates creative marketing, the challenges of hiring talent and the dangers of being seduced by every new technological development.
But then, Bruce McColl, hitherto low-profile global chief marketing officer at Mars, is getting used to being in the spotlight. The global advertising fraternity is making sure of that.
McColl, based in Melbourne, not a million miles from his home town of Geelong, has come to the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity to collect the coveted Advertiser of the Year award. Which is why he is now blinking, literally and figuratively, in the sunshine.
He says he was 'blown away' when told that Mars - the portfolio of which spans confectionery (M&Ms, Skittles and Wrigley), petcare (Pedigree and Whiskas) and food (Uncle Ben's and Dolmio), among other segments - had won.
'I couldn't underestimate the impact, not just for us but also for our agency partners (including Omnicom's BBDO Worldwide and DDB Worldwide),' he says. 'We don't drive creativity by ourselves. It takes courage and a willingness to take risks and make some mistakes.'
Without mentioning Mars' strict ad pre-testing protocols, McColl eulogises about his agencies' creative courage. For him, such bravery means a willingness 'to come to us with ideas that are maybe half-formed, put them on the table and risk getting them rejected'.
Surely, at the end of the day, marketing's raison d'etre is all about sales? 'We're firm believers that sales and creativity are absolutely connected,' McColl says, warming to the theme. 'We have a very simple business challenge - we're a mass brand (-owner) that needs to reach billions of people across the globe. Creativity plays an enormous role to help cut-through.'
The Cannes award is also testament to the Mars marketer's ability to 'look at half-formed ideas and say: "I'm going to run with this"', says McColl. 'This award is a celebration of marketers who want to work in that way.' It helps that his boss, chief executive Paul Michaels, is a former marketer who is 'equally pleased' about the Cannes honour and what it signifies.
Though he doesn't say as much, winning Advertiser of the Year is also a personal triumph for McColl, rewarding the risk he took in 2010 and 2011 in consolidating the Mars creative roster from four to two agencies.
That decision, says McColl, was a 'tough one' - and he credits the shops that lost out, TBWA Worldwide and SapientNitro, with being 'excellent agencies'.
But the slimmed-down roster is a 'fantastic' arrangement for Mars, with BBDO and DDB having 'a globalness that reflects ours ... whether it's AMV in London, whether it's in Chicago, New York, Brazil (or) Moscow'.
Mars was an early follower of globalisation, driven by the Mars family - which, as sole owner of a company with annual sales of $30bn, is one of the US' richest dynasties (and, McColl indicates, one of two no-go areas for our conversation).
Theirs is a classic tale of US entrepreneurial success, which began when founder Frank Mars first made sweets in his Washington kitchen in 1911 - a far cry from today's multinational, which embraces the categories already listed as well as soft drinks and a scientific research arm called Symbioscience.
Hints of the Mars fable feature in the new Twix ad, unveiled at Cannes by McColl. It tells the story of twin brothers in the 19th century inventing the Twix bar, but ending up competing against each other in rival factories. No such filial angst exists at the real company, now in the fourth generation of family ownership, albeit led by non-family executives since 2001.
Marketing tries tentatively to lift this veil of secrecy. How has the Cannes Lions award gone down with family members? 'We told them and they were very pleased,' McColl says coyly.
The second off-limits topic is the competition Mars faces, from confectionery rivals Kraft, Hershey and Nestle, and pet-care producers Nestle Purina and Procter & Gamble. 'We don't overly focus on, or want to talk about, our competitors - we'd rather talk about how we approach marketing,' McColl says firmly. It's clear he is not losing sleep over Cadbury's sponsorship of the Olympics, either.
He is more relaxed when talking about the benefits of the company's non-public status, which he learned to appreciate during a stint as marketing director of Mars Russia in the late-90s - 'a roller-coaster ride' that coincided with the collapse of the rouble.
His time in Russia provided 'a fascinating insight into why I wanted to stay with Mars', says McColl. 'When we saw the depth of the crisis, the company said: "We're here for the long term." Because we were privately owned, we could make that decision.'
Being private sets Mars apart from its chief rivals, and that status certainly wasn't a hindrance to the company's most audacious acquisition to date. In 2008, Mars bought gumand mint-maker Wrigley for a whopping $23bn and became the world's largest confectioner as a result.
That title did not last long, however, thanks to Kraft's purchase of Cadbury two years later. Would such a development be a cause for concern to Mars' chief marketer? McColl swats the suggestion away.
So devolved is Mars' global marketing operation that McColl is based in Melbourne and has never felt the need to move to the company's US headquarters in Virginia.
This distance between himself and Mars' command post, he insists, does not put him at a disadvantage: 'A little insight into Mars. We have less than 100 people working in head office. So we have a unique culture which is decentralised (but is) the best of both worlds.'
Farah Ramzan Golant, executive chairman of Mars' UK agency, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, testifies to a culture 'that is very sensitised to local needs. They are committed to the power of local markets and local activation', she says.
The freedom to launch such quirkily local campaigns as the critically panned Mars bar 'goalie' ad in the UK - to which McColl's response is 'We set out to be noticed' - is a hallmark of this decentralisation.
But with its key markets in the US, Russia, China, Latin America and Western Europe, and a presence in more than 70 countries, the big wins for Mars are 'stories that are universal ideas', applicable across different media, demographics and geographies, he says.
McColl's favourite example of such big, portable narratives is the Snickers 'You're not you when you're hungry' campaign (see below), which scooped several awards at Cannes this year.
Having worked in many of Mars' overseas markets, cricketand rugby-loving McColl and his family (wife Claire and two grown-up children) returned to Melbourne in 2010.
From his tally of odd-jobs during school and while studying economics at university - selling fruit and vegetables, cleaning windows, concreting kerbsides, and a year full-time on a Ford production line building car engines - came a desire to be a marketer, and one with academic leanings.
He enthuses about Mars' academic partnerships around the world - the company sponsors a marketing laboratory at the University of South Australia's Ehrenberg-Bass Institute and works with US business schools MIT and Wharton - as a way to connect with 'a very diverse and eclectic group of people to challenge how we think about marketing'.
On Wharton's website, McColl's speaker profile refers to his passion for 'blending scientific rigor with creative excellence' - something that has stood him in good stead on his journey from brand manager in Mars' Australian petcare business to the global position in which he finds himself today.
A big influence has been Byron Sharp's book How Brands Grow (see below), which provides clarity on how brands need to remind consumers that they exist, hence McColl's emphasis on creativity.
Yet creativity, suggests Marketing, is not top of every chief marketing officer's agenda. 'It certainly is on mine,' McColl counters.
With no hint of regret, McColl notes that he hasn't personally commissioned an ad since taking on his current role in 2006, but his agencies observe just how instrumental he is to big global campaigns. 'Bruce (McColl) and Paul (Michaels) jumped on Snickers' "You're not you when you're hungry" as a winning idea,' says Golant.
Which leads us to the question of McColl's primary purpose as CMO. There are several models, with the budget-holding chief marketing officer at one end of the spectrum and the figurehead at the other. 'I'm neither,' he responds, smiling.
In fact, globe-trotter McColl's influential role reflects Mars' long-held view that its territories should be run with autonomous local management teams, including marketing.
'We have a head of marketing for each of our segments,' he explains. 'I lead the function, I set the agenda along with our marketing leadership group.'
Local marketing directors report to a business segment's leader - so, for example, in the UK, Miranda Sambles, marketing director of Mars Petcare, reports to Mike Gallacher, managing director of the Petcare business, while Michael Magee, vice-president of marketing at Mars Chocolate UK, has Fiona Dawson, the president of that business, as his boss.
McColl's own direct reports are media, sustainable marketing practice and the Mars University programme, which shapes the company's marketing ethos, enshrined in the Mars Marketing Code. This set of rules - and it is no exaggeration to describe them as The 10 Commandments for Mars marketers and its agencies - embodies the company's five principles of 'quality, freedom, efficiency, mutuality and responsibility'.
And it's here that McColl sheds his customary modesty, accepting 'co-credit' for Mars' stand on marketing to children. 'Back in 2007, we were the first global food company to announce publicly that we were not going to be marketing to children under 12. We were very pleased about the leadership stance we took,' he says.
If curbing ads to children is one pillar of Mars' efforts to be a responsible marketer, its action on the calorie and fat content of its confectionery is another.
Keenly aware that action on this issue will help stave off legislation, Mars has spent 'millions and many man-hours in R&D' reformulating its products to remove transfats and reduce saturated fats, McColl says. He agrees that 'there isn't a responsible food manufacturer that isn't thinking about this (obesity) issue', but adds that 'the reality is, chocolate is a treat'.
Of course, to boost sales, Mars has to encourage repeat purchases. To this, McColl replies that Mars confectionery equates to a 'small' proportion of its customers' total calorie intake, adding: 'We're proud to play our part in initiatives such as GDA (guideline daily amount) labelling. We want people to make informed choices.'
He seems to enjoy challenging marketing hype, and is wary of the pitfalls of untested platforms. 'In the past decade, there have been plenty of Second Lifes,' he says, dismissing the online virtual world that, in the last decade, was hailed as the next big thing. On the subject of spotting the marketing version of the Emperor's New Clothes, then, does he believe social media can sell chocolate and pet food? McColl pauses before he responds. 'Yes, it can. The question is how you use it.'
More interesting to McColl is the interplay between media, which has 'endless possibilities'. He cites the 2010 Super Bowl, when a Snickers ad featured veteran actress Betty White.
More than 500,000 Facebook 'fans' subsequently put their name to a call for White to appear on US comedy show Saturday Night Live, and the story was picked up by the national media. 'That gave us enormous reach - 500,000 Facebook fans on their own wouldn't have made a big difference for us, but 500,000 fans picked up by mass media did,' says McColl.
On the day of our interview, news breaks of WPP's acquisition of AKQA. Mars retains SapientNitro for digital duties, so what does McColl think is the future for specialist shops? 'The challenge will always be how digital fits into a bigger picture, as one medium is not the solution,' he says. 'Great branding doesn't start with a channel - it starts with an idea.'
Despite the praise and plaudits for Mars in Cannes this year, McColl leaves the impression that he believes conceiving those 'big ideas' will remain Mars' constant challenge, too.
McCOLL ON ...
Technology in marketing
'We're constantly reviewing new technologies. You need to ask whether they fit with your key strategies, rather than letting your strategies adapt to them. Our challenge is: How do we reach and remind billions of consumers around the globe to pick up one of our brands?'
Magic vs logic
'Creativity is something that's magical in marketing. The science is to say: these are our objectives, strategy and challenges - if you build creativity round that, you harness creativity with a purpose. We understand which of our ads is working. When your advertising gets noticed, it drives the sales figures.'
Talent in Mars Inc
'You can't grow a business and lead a category and an industry without talent. Hiring is one of the most important elements of my job. I will meet with a senior (candidate) before we make (the appointment). That is the constant challenge - to be out there signalling to potential Mars associates to come and work for us, and then to equip them with all the knowledge we can. That's where the Mars University and the Mars laboratory come in.'
'Another challenge is to get the best talent in our creative agencies to want to work on Mars' business. (Winning the Advertiser of the Year) award says to agency staff: You can achieve great things if you work with us.'
My marketing heroes
'My heroes are our growth managers. It's not just about (commissioning) advertising. Advertising is an essential part of this, but it's someone who's going to lead our organisation, to understand what we need to be doing to drive our business.
'I could single out lots of people, but someone like Mike Magee leading the UK chocolate business - the way he needs to operate from a local point of view and the way he contributes to global thinking are a great testimony.'
The global 'You're not you when you're hungry' campaign was created to grow the brand's value sales and boost its penetration. The insight, which came from the UK, is that guys want to be accepted by their mates, and when they get hungry, they're off their game. Snickers is positioned as the bar of substance that can solve this problem. 'We've seen it now in over 50 countries across different media which are locally adapting it,' says McColl.
For 10 years, the pasta-sauce brand has used a puppet Italian family that, despite the country's cooking heritage, opts for the convenience of Dolmio's pre-made sauces. 'The UK developed the idea and ran with it,' McColl says. 'We've been able to lever that back into Australia. There's a shared sense of humour and a strong flow of entertainment that moves seamlessly between the two countries.'
- Various pharmaceutical sales and marketing roles in Australia, Schering-Plough (1985-1992)
- Various marketing roles in Australia and New Zealand rising to group marketing manager, Mars Petcare (1992-1998)
- Marketing director (all segments), Mars Russia (1998-2001)
- Marketing director, Mars Food Australia (2002-2003)
- Marketing vice-president, Mars Petcare Europe (2003-2006)
- Chief marketing officer, Mars Incorporated (2006-present)
Professor Byron Sharp's How Brands Grow examines the myths of marketing, based on decades of research from Nielsen and TNS.
Sharp, a director of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science at the University of South Australia, challenges received wisdom on issues such as how ads and promotions really work. Sharp characterises supposedly loyal consumers as 'uncaring cognitive misers'.
McColl says: 'He really focuses you on what marketing needs to do. In the book is the idea that most people aren't thinking about your brands, so you need to reach a lot of people and keep reminding them to buy you. That's why creativity is so important.'
Annual sales: $30bn
In 2008, Mars bought Wrigley for $23bn
This article was first published on marketingmagazine.co.uk