United Biscuits CEO Martin Glenn
United Biscuits CEO Martin Glenn
A view from Martin Glenn

United Biscuits' Martin Glenn: culture is more important than strategy

One of the most celebrated marketer-turned-chief executives, Glenn's first CEO post came at PepsiCo, following his rise through the company's marketing ranks. He moved to Birds Eye Iglo in the same role, before landing the top job at United Biscuits in 2013.

These really are the best of times. Commerce is a massive force for good; it has lifted millions of people from grinding poverty and given the world a standard of living that would have been seen as a fantasy 50 years ago. There has never been a better time to be alive, so let’s appreciate what we have and stop apologising for all the things that aren’t perfect.

A marketing mindset drives all commerce. Marketing’s role is to translate what’s going on outside the organisation into a set of meaningful plans to take advantage of it and force continuous adaptation. All business failures are ultimately marketing failures; organisations blind to change seek the comfort of routine, which can be their undoing. Too few CEOs (about 25%) have critical marketing experience, but this is starting to increase, as boards move from risk-aversion, after the financial crash, to organising for growth – a trend that will favour marketers.

‘Better’ beats ‘different’ in the design and delivery of products and services. Brainstorming is easy; the patient development of superior performance, however, is hard work requiring intense consumer attention and focus. Consumers’ attention span is the bottleneck; we (consumers) have to ignore most marketing messages, or we would go mad, so making something better has a much greater chance of being noticed and valued.

Nonetheless, sometimes ‘different’ does beat ‘better’. In advertising, getting noticed requires boldness. Take Walkers Crisps, for example: a simple product, brilliantly done and with a track record of memorable advertising. Another case in point is last year’s ‘Sweeet’ campaign from McVitie’s – truly memorable advertising based on a simple, bold premise.

There's never been a better time to be alive, so let's appreciate what we have and stop apologising for all the things that aren't perfect.

Beware the ‘Year Zero’ fallacy. Change is everywhere, but so, too, is consistency. Social media will enable different ways of selling and influencing; ethical factors will continue to be an important evaluation criterion, but, fundamentally, most people want to have a job, start a family or enter into a rewarding relationship and will value brands that make their life easier. There is rarely a paradigm shift.

Culture is more important than strategy. In all my experience, the difference between the average and good companies was always the culture – how things happened up and down the company. It is hard to make command and control work for long and, similarly, colleagues are not simply human slot machines, motivated only by money.

Culture scares most CEOs because it’s not tangible or quantitative, but culture starts from the very top. People don’t take their cues from mission statements or screensaver propaganda, but from how they see decisions being made. People need to feel that they are doing something worthwhile and that they have the tools to get the job done.

Culture change can be dramatic and rapid. United Biscuits has lower levels of absence, accidents and consumer complaints than two years ago. The change has been largely culture-driven – people figuring out for themselves what difference they can and want to make.

Be authentic. People want to follow real people, not a stereotype. So, know your strengths and be aware of, but not spooked by, your weaknesses. Trying to be someone else will make you unhappy and ineffective; be open to change, but keep your core solid. ‘Better’ beats ‘different’ and people can sniff out a phoney from a mile away.