Ungrateful General Mills

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When I started in the ad business, I was told I wouldn’t be taken seriously until I’d cut my teeth on a packaged goods account. I didn’t blow off the advice, per se, but I do remember thinking it was a little old school. And my career trajectory climbed just fine without candy bars, detergent or frozen peas for several years. My foray into packaged goods actually didn’t happen until I was in my mid-30’s, when a recruiter called me at my most impressionable (ie. during the darkest days of maternity leave) and convinced me that continued career growth required a big girl job at a big girl agency on a big girl account. I landed a job at Saatchi running the General Mills yogurt business. This was right before Yoplait, their most profitable brand, became the plague and Chobani was about to take over the world. It was a wilder ride than a typical packaged goods account for that reason, but I quickly realized what my elders had meant many years ago when they said packaged goods was important experience.

I was blessed to have had multiple good agency/client relationships over my nearly 15-year agency career. But it wasn’t until I worked on General Mills that I realized how little I knew about the businesses of the brands for which I’d been developing work over the earlier years. I don’t believe my clients had deliberately decided to leave me and my colleagues out of business conversations, it was just an unstated division of labor: they did the business strategy stuff, and we did the creative stuff that came out the other end. It all worked quite well, but I didn’t realize what I personally was missing.

My experience on General Mills provided me a free MBA.

The cynic in me cursed the 4:30am wake up calls to get me on the first plane out of New York to Minneapolis to sit in the all-day business strategy session to leave on the 9pm flight home, and the pints and pints of breast milk pumped on airport bathroom floors into bottles I’d then nestle between cold Red Bull cans in my Similac cooler to preserve for baby number two. Why is it necessary for me to miss wakeup and bedtime to sit through this pricing and distribution strategy meeting anyway? I’m just the ad girl! What General Mills knew was that without ensuring their agencies had the broadest context possible, and without inviting us to the table to debate that context with them, they would never achieve the maximum ROI from our relationship: the insights against which we’d develop ads would only be so deep, the degree to which we’d feel personally vested in the work would only be so high, and the chance of them selling concepts in to their own superiors would be that much lower. Packaged goods lives and dies by marketing. So as the agency, we weren’t just ad-makers, we were arguably their most important business partners.

I will admit I’ve done far better work in my career than I did for General Mills. There’s a lot to blame for that, and for the purposes of this post, it’s not relevant. What’s relevant is that I transformed from an ad girl into a marketer because of that company. As such, my General Mills experience was one of the two biggest motivators in my decision to move to the client side. And I’m so glad I made that move, so I have a lot to thank them for.

The other motivation to move client side was a realization that the agency model was crumbling. Higher expectations. Squeezed rates. Shorter timelines. Infinite scope creep. Multiple new media channels requiring “experts” in this and that. Pitting agencies against each other in a race to the deal. Yuck. On the contrary, when I was at Saatchi, General Mills didn’t just respect us as business partners, they respected the agency itself as a business. One that needed to make money in order to pay its employees well in order to deliver the work on which their own business relied.

My how things have changed.

Having been in New Business for years, I saw a lot of RFPs and a lot of less-than-advantageous terms. But never this severe, and never from a company the size of General Mills. 120-day payment terms could mean a small agency misses payroll. Ownership over ideas you didn’t pay for is simply theft. Lack of transparency into the size of the prize surely would only attract the desperate, no? Would you want to work with you, General Mills? Perhaps I subconsciously saw all of this coming and I owe both of my reasons to leave the agency world to you.

America ain’t healthy, but it’s pledging to get healthier, and that’s a bad headline for the packaged goods company that makes neon cereal, Chinese food dinner kits and Hamburger Helper. My initial reaction was that these new, bordering-on-illegal agency terms was a desperate attempt to save money during rainy days. Sadly, it seems I am a Brooklyn snob and there is still quite a market for these food imposters: the company stock is up nearly 37% since the beginning of the year (compared to ~9% for the dow.) So you got me: what is your excuse, General Mills? Why would you want to put your most important business partners out of business? Your terms make the agency model completely unsustainable. It will come back to bite you in the artificial, high-maltose-corn-syrup laden, real-strawberries-my-ass Toaster Strudel. In the meantime, thanks for getting me out.

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