Outgoing General Mills global CMO Ivan Pollard on why he left, and what's next for him and the food giant
In a move to boost its profile four years ago, General Mills hired its first global chief marketing officer, luring former Coca-Cola Co. exec Ivan Pollard into the role. Now, he’s leaving as part of a restructuring effort.
Pollard's remit was to lead marketers on “thinking networked,” in his words, in ways that global plans could be executed to meet local tastes, elevating the marketing function within the organization. But with his exit, the food giant opted to eliminate the global CMO role.
“I’ve done the bit I came to do,” says Pollard, whose last day is June 15.
Ad Age recently spoke with him about his tenure, the reasons for his departure, and why he believes in a project-based agency model. He also talks about his next move. (Hint: it involves Star Wars and biking.) Below, a lightly edited transcript.
How did your departure come about?
We started thinking about the organization's evolution a year ago. [Structural work began in February 2020, and then COVID-19 put some plans on hold.] I kind of worked myself out of a job.
Are you the only marketer leaving at this point?
At this point, yes. Marketing will remain massively important. Now, it’s like we’re running the system in the cloud versus a mainframe. The whole thing has been about elevating marketing. I think we’ve put it into a very modern position, being networked instead of at the center.
How would you describe the company’s overall marketing when you came, and what are the main changes you’re leaving it with now?
It was North America and then the other markets. It was a much more loose federation. We wanted to have a common strategy, elevate creativity, join community and build the capabilities to manage global consistency for our global brands, and yet with local relevance. Digital is part of that. We’re in a really good position. Our brands have been winning, our marketing has been winning. Our marketers feel more vital to the company’s future. Marketing has elevated as a result of the last four years.
What do you feel your biggest accomplishment has been at General Mills?
Elevating. Getting the marketers to get their mojo back. I’ve had 30 years of working on global brands. [Pollard previously worked with brands including Nike while at Wieden+Kennedy, later helped launch “Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace” and the following two films in the “Star Wars” franchise while at management consultancy Unity, and was a senior VP at Coca-Cola North America.]
Star Wars taught me the power of storytelling. At Coke, taking an iconic, massive brand and managing it with discipline and care. And General Mills, that’s been more about how a house of brands can come together. It’s not that in 2017 they didn’t believe in marketing. They were coming off the back of other ways to manage the P&L. As we started to put big ideas behind brands with more resources behind them, we started to grow again.
A couple of years ago there was backlash around how General Mills was pushing agencies for what they felt were unfair payment terms. Did that have a negative effect on the team internally?
The U.S. creative agency review happened just before I got here. The creativity of agencies has to be accessed, but we were changing how. I worked agency side for years, and one agency doesn’t have the monopoly on creativity. We moved to a more project-based thing. The market was being oversupplied and undermined by all of the transparency around the digital media ecosystem, and we said we’re not up for that. That’s what sent a bit of a ripple through, we changed payment terms and agency contracts. We have a very good media agency [WPP’s Mindshare] that’s abiding by the demands we put on it for transparency.
Internally, I think it worked very powerfully. If you put a project-based model in, that allows you to grow with strong work and you hold an agency accountable. It put the stewardship and longevity of the brands more internal.
What are your thoughts for the industry as a whole about a global marketing leadership role like the one you held?
Over the last 10 years, a lot of companies started to eliminate the CMO and go to a chief growth officer or a chief strategy officer, or product, or digital. I think they’re all different names for the same thing. Marketing is more complicated than ever. And with e-commerce, and connected commerce, making your brand stand out and be desired above all others has become more important than ever. There are three roles every marketing leader should still embrace: advocate for the power of marketing, otherwise we’ll cost cut our way to growth and that's not sustainable; inspire the marketers to reach for greater things; and enable them to do the work.
Every company that is genuinely global, with brands that need to mean the same thing to everybody but need to be special to everybody, that global nature is more important than ever. I’d advocate for any global company, you need somebody who can think about the nuances and the depth of the willingness to change your brand to resonate across geographies and age groups. That 'globality' is an increasing need.
What’s next for you?
I’m going to have a Coke and enjoy a bowl of Cheerios and rewatch “Star Wars Episode 1” and then get back on my bike and into the future. Marketing is still a fun world to be in, watching the way that brands and people grow. It’s a great time to be in marketing.
Would your departure have happened without the rise of the business during COVID-19?
I think it would have happened, yes. I don’t think it would have happened at this time. I think we were always working toward a networked future. It accelerated our ability to network. I think it accelerated our practice.