How Toys R Us' New CMO Plans to 'Unleash the Magic'

In Q&A, Carla Hassan Talks Toys, Data and Media Mix

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After 13 years at PepsiCo, Carla Zakhem-Hassan traded soft drinks for toys last month when she joined Toys R Us as exec VP-global chief marketing officer. Ms. Hassan, who is tasked with managing media budget that measured around $60 million last year, hopes to restore childhood magic to the beleaguered chain, which recently laid off a reported 250 positions and has struggled with drooping sales.

Carla Hassan
Carla Hassan Credit: Toys R Us

Ad Age: How is this new role a fit for you?

Carla Hassan: It seems like a big change, but it's not really -- I've been around kids and parents my entire career, working on brands like Eggo waffles, Cap'n Crunch cereal and Gatorade. I've always believed brands play a pivotal role in educating and entertaining kids and families. And I'm a Toys R Us kid—I grew up with this brand. All of us can reflect back to that day when we walked into one of those huge toy stores for the first time—you can't forget it. Toys R Us and Babies R Us—the experience is one that can't be replicated anywhere, and I look forward to unleashing the magic to our customers again.

Ad Age: What's first on your agenda?

Ms. Hassan: For the brands—in terms of experience and engagement with customers—data can really play a big role here in a way that drives growth. I want us to use data to drive creativity, inspiration and connection. There's an opportunity to connect and reconnect with moms—this is an emotional category where we can help her understand that we are a partner. We have the ultimate credibility in terms of understanding what she needs every stage of the first 12 years [of a child's life].

Ad Age: What kind of changes can we expect? Are you considering any shifts in media channels?

Ms. Hassan: We have really been figuring out is how do we take our marketing mix and think about it differently? We've been on a journey where we have already seen an increase in how we're talking, from a digital perspective. There is opportunity as we look at the mix to think about how we go deeper with our media partners, how we think about content differently, and how we think about where we play and what media mix elements. Stay tuned on that. If you're a marketer today and not thinking about how to make those marketing dollars work differently for you from a content, partnership and media perspective, I don't know how you survive.

Ad Age: What is Toys R Us' biggest challenge in today's retail environment?

Ms. Hassan: The biggest challenge right now is continuing to figure out how we connect with kids and with moms in a world that is ever changing for them, as they are moving so quickly, as they are transacting. The biggest opportunity is how we look at their journey—how to transition from when a mom first gets pregnant, has the baby, then has a toddler, then has a young child.

Ad Age: How do you think marketing can help revive sales at Toys R Us?

Ms. Hassan: The biggest asset we have is the magic of the experience. As a specialty retailer in this world of toys and babies, we have an experience that is unparalleled and how to bring that to life in a meaningful way to today's moms and kids is something we have that no one else has.

Ad Age: How do you plan to leverage the brand's 880-unit brick-and-mortar base to attract digitally-minded consumers?

Ms. Hassan: Obviously the omnichannel experience is really important, to have a digital experience in addition to the brick-and-mortar. We have the ability to drive an experience in brick-and-mortar like no other—the two can live together very seamlessly in terms of creating an unparalleled experience.

Ad Age: Toys R Us has worked with BBDO for two years now. How do you envision your agency relationships in the future?

Ms. Hassan: BBDO has been a wonderful partner. I've worked with them for a very long time. As I get a little bit more into the business, there's always an evaluation of who our partners are, but there's nothing specific. Outside of BBDO, there's always an opportunity to think about who our partners are particularly as we think about how our marketing spend will shift, how we'll bring stores to life and online to life. The right partners are going to be critical.

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