Generals Mills' Marketers Go Back to School With CMO Addicks

Staffers Get a Jump on Trends on First Wednesday of Every Month

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Mark Addicks Evaluates others' ads.
Mark Addicks Evaluates others' ads.

Looking to get a quick read on hot marketing trends? Try suburban Minneapolis.

Specifically, the Charles A. Pillsbury Auditorium at General Mills headquarters on the first Wednesday of each month. That's where the company's chief marketing officer, Mark Addicks, leads about 300 of its marketers through a rapid-fire tour of what's catching his eye in the ad world. Last Wednesday, he plowed through hits and misses involving everything from an outdoor campaign for Duracell to Taco Bell's latest TV ads.

At first blush, none of this seems overly relevant to a company whose charge is to get consumers to eat more Cheerios, Yoplait, Green Giant and other packaged foods. But the presentation, which is part of a broader employee-education event called "First Wednesday," exemplifies the priority General Mills puts on keeping an outside view.

"A marketer today has to be incredibly curious and externally focused," said Mr. Addicks, who started First Wednesdays about 10 years ago out of a concern that the company was becoming too insular. "How do we bring the outside in to them on a regular basis? And how do we curate that?"

The event -- which packs a ton of content into an hour-and-a-half -- includes a guest speaker and quick-hitting case studies in which General Mills marketers discuss their own campaigns that have performed well, and not so well. Last Wednesday, Ad Age got a firsthand look at the event, which is normally open only to employees and vendors.

The most revealing part is Mr. Addicks' "headlines" segment, in which he charges through at least a dozen examples of advertising work from the outside, offering a quick take on why it worked or didn't work, and what General Mills can learn. The pace is fast. "Keep going," he says, advancing from one slide to the next on a big screen.

He shows a clip of a an HBO Go ad that spoofs regular TV's awkward viewing moments with parents. "The consumer is being trained that media is a personal option … that they can control," Mr. Addicks said. A few minutes later he shows a Duracell bus-shelter campaign in which the shelter only heats up if its occupants hold hands. Mr. Addicks' take? "It's a way to start the conversation and let other people market for you."

When he shows Taco Bell's mocking "Ronald McDonald" campaign for its new Waffle Taco, the crowd laughs. But Mr. Addicks says the campaign has spurred some criticism about the taco on social media. Lesson? You need a "remarkable product before the remarkable marketing," he said.

Later, General Mills brand marketers take the stage in a segment called "whips." Each person gets a minute to talk about a campaign they are working on, with a loud cracking whip sound signaling time is up. One woman just beats the clock as she describes how Fiber One's new meal bars were able to capitalize on free publicity from an appearance on the "The Dr. Oz Show."

The company also spotlights its own failures in a segment called "blips," although that part was skipped last Wednesday because the scheduled speaker was unable to attend.

Near the end of the event, General Mills ceded the stage to guest speaker Bob Lord, global CEO for AOL Platforms, who walked through marketing lessons from a book he co-authored called "Converge." Previous guest speakers have included Martha Stewart and former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe.

Mr. Addicks compared First Wednesdays to "throwing a prom every month." Thankfully for him, he gets plenty of help from Ami Anderson, a former brand marketer who organizes the event as part of her job as director of marketing excellence.

Ms. Anderson helps curate the headlines for Mr. Addicks and also oversees a related initiative called "eCase," which includes electronically distributing marketing case studies pulled from outside brands. "Sometimes when you are stuck in your category and your brand, you have your blinders on," she said. "I am encouraging [employees] to look up and look out."

And like clockwork, that happens at least once a month, on Wednesdays.

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