Category Archives: the corporation

The Sacrificial CMO

Vw Friday, I was wondering whether Mary Minnick of The Coca-Cola Company is a "sacrificial change agent," a woman who was destined to break the rules, antagonize her colleagues, and push the corporation too far. 

Adam Richardson wrote to say that we should perhaps also see Carly Fiorina of HP in this way.  Interesting. 

When I got thinking about it, I realized I missed two other candidates.

Kerri Martin spent 20 months at Volkswagen as the director of brand innovation. Martin has piloted Mini’s reentry into the US and Marketing Vox says she was "known as a risk taker."  She dumped Arnold Boston, the firm responsible for the spectacularly successful "Drivers Wanted" campaign in favor of Crispin Porter & Bogusky.  Crispin raised a ruckus with TV spots like the "V-Dub in da haus" (pictured). 

Whether Martin can be called a sacrificial change agent is complicated by her relationship with Crispin, the agency she brought to VW without the usual review.  (As we have noted before, CMOs have such brief tenures [~20 months] that they are sometimes obliged to bring agencies with them from their prior lives.)  It’s hard to tell.  Who was the change agent: Martin or Crispin?   
It was Crispin for instance who suggested the change of name from Golf to Rabbit.  Solman of BrandWeek continues,

Crispen has created many controversial campaigns for Volkswagen in its first year on the business; ads featuring frenetic drivers embracing their "Fast"; imploring GTI riders to "un-pimp" their rides; relaunching the Rabbit with over-reproductive innuendo; offering guitar giveaways for turning cars into mobile amplifiers; and producing shock spots for rubberneckers with on-screener Jetta accident ("Safe Happens"). 

The other candidate for "sacrificial change agent" status is Julie Roehm, the woman who joined Walmart to serve as its advertising/communications chief.  Roehm lasted just 10 months.

In retrospect, this was not a match made in heaven.  BusinessWeek calls WalMart "one of America’s most colorless companies."  And this is what Roehm says about herself,

I think part of my persona is that I am an envelope pusher.  The idea of change in general can be uncomfortable for many people, and my persona as an agent of change can prompt that feeling.

Roehm says Walmart "would rather have had a painkiller [than take] the vitamin of change."  (from Berner, as below.)

Riley says Walmart should have known better.

Give me a break. You didn’t know that Julie Roehm is a lightning rod? A change agent? You didn’t know that she had a track record for pushing the envelope in advertising, especially leveraging sex and sexual innuendo?

By this reading, it looks like Walmart was merely naive.  The likeliest scenario is perhaps that when Roehm saw how deeply Walmart was going to resist change, and decided to go out with a bang.  Her status as a sacrificial player was, in other words, thrust upon her.  "Go big or go home" turned into "go big and go home."

Here too the relationship with an agency, in this case Draft FCB, complicates things.  Who was the change agent: Roehm or Howard Draft? Was Roehm  being run by the agency?  Was she being pushed by the agency?  Was Walmart firing Roehm to get to Draft FCB?

This much is clear.  If someone IS a change agent in a deeply conservation organization, they will need external support.  And agency, with the deep creative and strategic pockets, are designed to supply this support.  The solitary change agent badly needs a partner in change, and as Tom Peters once said, innovation requires a "freak on the inside and a freak on the outside."  The agency serves as the freak on the outside.

Summing up

There are 5 points (or possibilities) to note here:

1.  The notion that some CMOs serve as sacrificial agents is perhaps encouraged by the fact that we have several more candidates to treat as evidence.  Whether Mary Minnick, Carly Fiorina, Kerri Martin and Julie Roehm all so qualify may be disputed, but the evidence is suggestive, no?

2. All of these candidates are female, a fact to reckon with in all kinds of ways.

3. One of these is to ask whether female CMOs are more eager to serve as a sacrificial change agent.  And if this is the case, what is it about the makeup, the training, or the generational character of these executives that they are more willing to "take the hit"? 

4. Another is to ask whether they being set up?  Do these women enter the corporation in good faith only to discover that the corporation has no intention of committing to change?  Given the choice of being true to their mandate or the corporation, they choose, (more willingly than men?), to be true to the mandate and suffer the consequences.  A systematic study of the sacrificial change agent would look at who profits from an outgoing change agent.  If it’s always a man, we might have grounds for suspicion.  Men are then the beneficiaries of female self sacrifice. 

5.  The last take-away here has to do with the agency.  If there is a new pattern here it a realignment of the agency-corporation relationship.  In the old days, the agency would serve as a brain trust, a conceptual innovator, of an organization that could otherwise indulge itself in a "rules and regs" approach to business.  In a perfect world, we might have expected this relationship to intensify. Now that the corporation looks increasingly like an Indonesia resort with a tsunami of change at its doorstep, we might have expected it to hope for a deeper relationship to the agency, to rely on it ever more completely.

But that’s not what has happened.  The agency world has been displaced and diminished by the new media, new consumers, new marketing.  Plus, its future watching abilities are not much changed from what they were 15 years ago.  It’s clear many agencies have not stepped up to the innovation challenge.  But even if this were not the case, the agency would still be estranged by the new realities of the life of the CMO. To get anything done in their 20 months at the corporation they have to "agency up" (as in "lawyer up"), and this has the effect of putting the agency-corporation relationship at risk. 

Ah, the planets of corporation are realigning.  What to do with marketing, that inconvenient interface with the world out there, remains a pressing question.  And the question is especially pressing for the CMO.


Anonmymous.  2007.  VW Marketing Exec Kerri Martin Calls It Quits.  Marketing Vox.  January 12, 2007. here

Barbaro, Michael and Stuart Elliott.  2006.  Wal-Mart Fires Marketing Star and Agency.  New York Times.  December 8, 2006. here. 

Berner, Robert.  2007.  My Year At Wal-Mart: how marketing whiz Julie Roegm suffered  a spectacular fall in 10 short months.  BusinessWeek. February 12, 2007.  here.
(source for the Walmart as "colorless")

McCracken, Grant.  2007.  Soul of the Corporation, Scourge of the Corporation. This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics. March 2, 2007.  here.

Postrel, Virginia.  1997.  The Peters Principles.  Reason.  October. here.  [This interview between Postrel and Tom Peters is the only source I could find for the Peters’ "freak" quote.  My wife heard him use the phrase at at Design Management Institute Meeting in (or around) 2ooo.  It’s a great interview. ]

Riley, David.  2006.  An open letter to Walmart, Julie Roehm and Draft/FCB. Brand New Day: Thoughts on marketing and advertising.  BusinessWeek. December 14, 2006. here

Solman, Gregory.  2007.  Kerri Martin’s Abrupt Exit Raises Shops’ Hopes.  Adweek.  January 15, 2007, p. 7.

Soul of the corporation, scourge of the corporation

Mary_minnick I was at IDEO a couple of months ago.  They were kind enough to ask me to come speak at one of their Friday "Know Hows."  A guy called Scott Underwood gave me a quick tour, and about 10 minutes in, I thought to myself, "this guy is really good at this."  Later, several IDEOers made a point to ask if I’d "met Scott," and half way through dinner, when Scott was talking about something, Tom Kelley leaned over and said, with real affection, "this is classic Scott."

I remember meeting someone like this at the Harvard Business School. There was a junior member of faculty who everyone loved.  He was good at some of the things you are supposed to be good at HBS, and he was smart as can be.  But none of this seemed to explain why he, like Scott, was a minor celebrity in the organization. 

Neither of these guys was remarkable for their power, accomplishments, or any specialized body of knowledge.  Both were likable, but neither of them was charismatic.  No, if these guys had celebrity, I think it was because they were both seen to be exemplars of the spirit of the corporation.  In fact, the phrase that started to role around in my head was, perhaps too melodramatically, "soul of the corporation." 

Compare these two guys to another species of corporate life, the sacrificial change agent.  I haven’t met anyone like this in the flesh, so I am now pretty working from the business press.  A.G. Lafley is the CEO of P&G and if there is a success story in marketing right now this guy is  definitively it.  Lafley is nothing short of a sensation.  But it’s hard not to wonder about the significance of his predecessor, Durk I. Jager. 

To judge from the journalistic treatments, Jager chose to drag P&G kicking and dreaming into the future.  He upset a great many people, but in the process he did A.G. Lafley an immense favor.  Whatever AG did to reform the corporation,and these reforms have been radical and continuous, he was going to look like a paragon of consideration by comparison.  It is even possible that Jager saw his role as deliberately sacrificial.  He knew he was going to pay for this reforms, and he did them anyway.

Mary Minnick is the outgoing CMO at the Coca-Cola Company.  To judge from the press reports, it sounds as if she might belong to this particular category of change agent.  Here’s what she had to say this week in the Financial Times. 

Change is uncomfortable, just as a human characteristic and for organisations as a whole. It’s challenging, it’s complicated, and it doesn’t always make people comfortable. 

Minnick pursued change anyhow.  As she told shareholders.  "I tend to be quite discontented in general.  It will never be fast enough or soon enough or good enough."

And we may judge how far she was prepared to transform the Coke paradigm, when she says,

All the work we did suggested that consumers are using beverages in dramatically different ways, ranging from disease prevention, to hydration, to weight reduction, to relaxation, to relieving stress and to fortification of nutrition. 

Change agents of this kind don’t stay for very long.  Ms. Minnick lasted 20 months.  But then that is perhaps the very nature of their contribution to the corporation.  They so upset the apple cart, they can’t stay for very long. 

What’s weird is that the new corporation is going to need both of these kinds of people.  As things speed up, as the corporation grows cloudier, both continuity and discontinuity are called for in equal measure.  As things speed up, as change grows more intense, it is really hard sometimes to remember what the corporation stands for.  How useful to have a "soul of the corporation" person around to remind us.  But then there will be moments when the corporation finds itself so far behind the curve that something revolutionary is called for.  Bring in the revolutionary. (And make sure the pay package is rich, because they won’t be here for long.) 

Now do these two creatures coexist?  Well, you’ve got me.  But then almost everything in the coming corporation is a bit of a mystery at the moment.   


Anonymous.  2006.  Queen of Pop.  BusinessWeek.  August 7, 2006. here.

Markels, Alex.  2006.  Turning the Tide at P&G.  U.S. News. October 22, 2006.  here.

Willman, John.  2007.  Soft drink survivor with no bitter aftertaste.  Financial Times.  February 26, 2007.  p. 10.