This article is part of an ongoing series of interviews with top marketing executives designed to offer you insights to help further your own career. Here you will learn what makes these executives successful and what they value most in those who work for them.
The following is a transcript of a conversation between MarketingProfs Senior Contributor William Arruda and Micky Pant, the Chief Marketing Officer of Yum, parent company of KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut. Micky was previously CMO of Reebok. The transcript has been edited for clarity and readability. This interview is also available in audio for our Annual Premium members. Click here to play the podcast.
William Arruda: You have a graduate degree from one of the world's most prestigious engineering schools in chemical engineering, and now you are the Chief Marketing Officer for Yum, KFC, and Pizza Hut. How does one make that career transition? Was this your plan at the beginning?
Micky Pant: I can assure you it was not the plan, because when I studied chemical engineering I thought that that's what I would do. But late in the chemical engineering program, I was in a factory run by the British Shell Corporation—a refinery, actually. At the lunch hour, all of us trainee engineers used to meet, and we also met guys from the marketing function.
All of us engineers would be covered in grime and suds and smelling of various chemicals. The marketing guys would describe how they met a fashion model in the morning and how they are going to have a shoot in the afternoon—[I thought] what the hell are we doing wrong!?
So I made a pitch to Unilever to accommodate me in marketing, and they agreed. Early on, I switched to marketing [permanently]. So that's the story...and I have enjoyed it so I didn't really think of doing anything else after I started down this path. But it really was not a plan at all.
William Arruda: Your being in consumer products goods was not necessarily a plan either, was it?
Micky Pant: That is correct. I started with Unilever and I worked with them for 15 years. Unilever is all about consumer goods, so I guess that got me locked into a kind of a frame of work. I worked briefly for PepsiCo and then for 10 years for Reebok International, so I've principally been in consumer goods.
Of late I've actually been more in retail, because Reebok is a fashion-oriented business with a fairly short product cycle—unlike the consumer goods guys. Yum is very retail-oriented. They're basically mass-marketed consumer brands.
William Arruda: Could you talk a little bit about how technology is changing marketing? What are some of the skills that up-and-coming marketers would need to make them attractive as they continue their careers?
Micky Pant: In the past what used to happen was that communication technology would [evolve]. What's happened over the last 5 years is the dramatic and explosive growth in the amount of hours that people are spending on computer screens, especially young people. They are surfing the Web, looking at content and, lately through the use of media centers and others, even watching television programming on the Internet.
Most recently, you have seen Apple sell 14 million iPods in the last quarter alone, bringing the total to 42 million. Even if you assume that 30 million of them are in use, that's a huge audience. They're getting increasingly sophisticated and the offerings on iTunes are increasing everyday.
So people are now watching programs on smaller screens, on telephones, etc. Unless you keep current with that, you find the effectiveness of your traditional marketing waning. There've been many examples at Reebok. We had one great example: We had a television commercial during the Super Bowl which then led people to the Internet. The Web site just burned up with the amount of traffic and the effect on sales was dramatic....
William Arruda: That was Terry Tate, the Office Linebacker, right? It was really a pivotal point in your career, and it really helped Reebok make a name for itself. I know the commercial was rated one of the most successful Super Bowl commercials ever. Obviously, it had a major impact on Reebok. Did it have a major impact on your career?
Micky Pant: I was fortunate that I was the Chief Marketing Officer at the time, so it was not as though I got promoted when the commercial went on air or anything. It aired the day the Super Bowl was in 2003, and the next day we got a call from the New York Stock Exchange saying could I come and ring the closing bell on the Exchange.
So I went there with Terry Tate, with this big football player, and we walked around the exchange. Dick Grasso was then the Chairman of the Exchange. And he was great—he pointed at the brokers he did not like so Terry Tate would tackle them.
It was a whale of a time. Closing the bell was flashed around the world. [Terry] was in USA Today, on the front page, he was on the Today Show. Matt Lauer said that was his favorite commercial at Super Bowl, he kept running it, and it became a big buzz thing.
William Arruda: Sometimes in marketing it does take one high-profile win like that to catapult a career. But obviously there are many other ways. You made it into the ranks of Chief Marketing Officer in a very short number of years. Could you share with us a little bit of your success strategy? What can we learn from you so that we can get to the top of the ladder skipping a few rungs?
Micky Pant: In general, talking about marketing success and what it takes for an executive to be successful at marketing, the first and most important is for people to think like consumers—and it's very difficult.
If you're a male you don't think the way women do, and if you're a female you don't quite get what marketing to males takes. If you're somewhat older like myself, you lose track of what young kids are thinking about, etc. You get into this kind of frame of mind of where you think the world is sitting...whereas you're actually sitting in a completely different space. And that calls for a combination of a number of things.
First, it calls for a tremendous amount of curiosity. I think that one thing I find in any successful marketer is that they are not opinionated at all. In fact, if anything, they're always asking questions and always wondering about things. They are spending a lot of time on the Internet or [reading] books or whatever.
Through conversations, they pick up on what's the buzz—what's happening in Japan, what's on the Yahoo Buzz index, what really is driving people these days. If a company is doing really well like Google these days, you know what's driving Google, why is it that makes so many people search on Google when you can get almost the same results on Yahoo, etc.
Or to give you a small example from our current times, Yum owns Pizza Hut, and about a third of the business is delivery. [Our customers] are beginning to order off the Internet, so in the US we sell $100 million of pizza off of the Internet.
In Korea, which has got the highest level of broadband penetration, we find one out of 10 pizzas being sold off the Internet.
In New Zealand, there's a brand called Hell Pizza that's delivering only off the Internet, and they've picked up 20% market share. So unless you know patterns of behavior of people on the Web, you will lose a massive opportunity in how to deliver product. That comes out of staying current, being curious.
William Arruda: So when people come to interview with you and they show curiosity, what else are some of the attributes or skills that they communicate that really make you say, "God we need this person"?
Micky Pant: You know, I've thought about this a lot, because we interview a lot of marketing folks.
One of the most important things is that if you look at a marketing success in any company, it almost invariably is linked to significant changes in supply chain logistics, distribution, warehousing, and all the other good things that go to make a commercial success. That's because you need the product, you need it distributed, you need the right price, etc.
It almost never can be done on the back [just] a great television commercial or a great marketing campaign. That is just the tip of the iceberg.
The rest of it calls for very hard work over periods of months— sometimes years—in being able to [bring about] fundamental changes in consumer perception. It happens only if the product is fundamentally changed and a new product has a chance of working only if it's differentiated, only if it's unique, and that calls for a lot of work.
So for a marketing person to be successful, they have to have curiosity. They have to come with a great idea. But to get it done what they need is people skills to be able to persuade people across the organization that this is a good thing to do. And that's devilishly difficult, because sometimes you have marketing people who tend to own the idea from the beginning. People to an extent will indulge that, but they will not really help because it's not their agenda.
You've got to make sure that the idea makes sense, firstly not just taking into account what's happening in the market but also what the aggregate capability in the organization is, and that it is solving problems for people there—so the factory guys say, "This is great, this makes it so much easier for me," and the franchisees say, "Fantastic! I will make more money this way."
In fact, it's best if it's not your idea because then you can always give credit to the other person and promote that. People see you as unbiased, and then they will make it happen.
So, in summary, there are two skills: one would be a kind of childlike curiosity, the other would be a person who doesn't have a big ego: someone who is willing to share the credit and involve people across the organization and make things happen.
William Arruda: The way you describe marketing is really as the center of the organization. It's not all about just the execution of the marketing campaign. It's about being connected to product development, finance and sales and all the other elements of the organization for marketing to be successful and to be seen as a strategic driver of the company.
Micky Pant: That's exactly correct—in fact, I'll tell you what it is, William. I've found marketing is one word, but it has two meanings. When you say the word "marketing" it means all the good things—the consumer, market orientation, the firm's orientation with the consumer in mind, etc. But it also is the moniker for the marketing department, and the marketing department in any company—even if it is a small part of the company, they cannot become the blue-eyed boys and the glory seekers because then otherwise it will fail.
So it's better to say that the consumer is what you're putting at the center of the organization, and that has no debate to it. If you say you want to make this a consumer-centric organization, they say yes. But if you say you want to make it a marketing-centric organization, the ones that get it will say yes. The others say, "Oh, does that mean the marketing guy runs the company because he is immature, he doesn't really understand, all he does is advertising...." You know what I mean.
So I think it is very important to realize that you're really putting the consumer in charge and the marketing function facilitates that, and then everything works perfectly.
William Arruda: Right, and marketers must have a real understanding of the target audience.
Micky Pant: Yeah, that is valuable. But the other thing is that for most markets, in my experience, the true energy is driven in terms of age by young consumers. It may be very young consumers or maybe teenagers, or it may be young adults. It's principally young people...and markets and products that appeal to young people do very well. Not necessarily to young people as buyers but the young mindset, it is the 16-year-old in all of us...you know what I mean?
I saw a man recently in Huntington Beach, he must have been in his 70s, but he had a T-shirt which said "16 till I die." That was beautiful, that's exactly it.
This guy would buy an iPod, but you don't market the iPod at a 65-year-old, you know, it's the young.
And I find that that is a very difficult thing to do, because firstly young people are very fickle, they are very hard to understand. If you have teenage kids, you know how difficult it is to understand that audience and also how they change all the time. It is tiring just keeping apace with them. So it's very important to keep brands young and contemporary. And that's another important part of the formula for success.
William Arruda: Youth is definitely key. Along those lines, I read recently that Chief Marketing Officers stay on average in major US corporations only 23 months—which is shocking, to me at least. Why do you think that is?
Micky Pant: I would imagine that if you take any designation with a C in it —Chief Technology Officer, Chief Financial Officer, Chief Marketing Officer or even Chief Executive Officer—the numbers will not be that different.
The mortality rate in office is fairly high in the American corporate world, I think. And part of it is not negative: it's that [the individuals] move from one company to another. I was CMO at Reebok, now I am CMO at Yum. I could've stayed on at Reebok had I wished—it isn't that when two years are over a trapdoor opens under your seat. Sometimes you choose to open the door and leave because there may be other career aspirations that you have...
But accounting for that, it is also a fact that it is a vulnerable job because the results are very visible. Marketing people do put together marketing campaigns that are out in the public domain. Everyone has an opinion on them and if by luck or incompetence sales do not deliver, people do get tired. Senior level positions in most companies do have maybe a three-year life expectancy. Good marketing people are sought after; marketing people get a lot of calls from headhunters you know.
William Arruda: Marketing itself is dynamic, and it's about keeping up with trends. Perhaps the movement is consistent with the movement in the marketplace.
Micky Pant: Yeah, that's true, and the world is changing. I grew up in India and now I sit in America and work for an American company, and part of the reason is that people recognize that India and China and emerging markets in Asia are going to be the center of gravity just based on economic performance and number of consumers.
William Arruda: Right, and I am glad that you bring that up. Could you tell us a little bit about the differences in marketing in the UK, China or India versus the US?
Micky Pant: Yeah well there're many differences. If you look at it in terms of the traditional marketing mix, the product normally is different, [ranging] from the mundane, like women in the Netherlands have wider feet and Asians have smaller feet, so if you're selling sneakers, the product does change a little bit.
Two, the sports that they play are very different—tastes, too. They like a lot of very highly spiced food in Asia, which is not the case in America or Europe. The Indians will not eat beef, in the Middle East they won't eat pork, so there's first off at that level vast differences in whatever product you are selling.
In terms of consumer psyche, there is a global youth culture which is driven by videogames, music, Hollywood, fashion, and sport which has a tremendous commonality... considering the differences. I mean, if you put young people together in a room from different countries, they strike a conversation fairly quickly and they will gravitate to the same sort of interest groups. With older people, it is different. Having said that, I think if you're running a brand, especially if you're running a global brand, there has to be a global brand essence. Great, successful brands have it.
Nike has it, Starbrucks has it...wherever in the world you go, there is an aspect of that brand that you instantly recognize. Aside from the logo, there is an attitude, a tone of voice, an execution which is very common. That's one of the most difficult things. I find that now, for example, with Pizza Hut or with Taco Bell, while Taco Bell is very successful in America and we're trying to make it international, but Mexican food is not as popular elsewhere as it is in America so first you have got that bit. And then...so you've got to change the product a bit from where it is now, you've got to make it spicier for Asia but then you've got to rise beyond that and say what is the core essence of the brand?
William Arruda: How important is it for a job candidate to have some kind of international marketing expertise?
Micky Pant: I think it's becoming critically important, for most American companies. In the United States, most American companies—at least the consumer goods companies—get somewhere between 10-50% of their sales from international. A few—like Coca-Cola—would be even higher. So whatever you do, you do have a global business. From language to idioms to cultural preferences, you better understand the consumer. You can contract those services, I mean you can always get advertising agencies—they've got global presence, they can fly in staff for a meeting and tell you what's happening in France or Germany, whatever.
But the more important aspect is more subtle, which is that if you have an executive who has worked across geographies, their thinking changes. I find the thinking of a person who's worked in Asia—like an American executive who spent five years in Hong Kong—very, very different in so many ways from the thinking of a person who's been here. They are influenced culturally, they tend to look at life a little more philosophically, they tend to be less direct in their communication, they are more respectful, and so on. And all that does translate to brand success eventually.
I wouldn't necessarily expect them to have lived overseas, but at least traveled extensively internationally. But absolutely: Other things being equal, international experience would be a huge plus here.
William Arruda: So even if it wasn't necessarily work experience, you would recommend to marketers to highlight either their curiosity internationally or their travel?
Micky Pant: Exactly. And they should spend time [getting to know a place]. If you get invited for a conference in Vienna for three days, take the time to spend another 10 days. Visit the local office, meet the agency, meet some partners, spend some time there living in that culture and then talk about it in your resume. I think it would be very well-received.
Asia is becoming very important, I know for everyone China, India, are important. But in aggregate the other economies across the ASEAN region—for example, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia—are huge growing economies. Go there, and you see 60% of the population is less than 14 years old. In 20 years, these are going to be the markets, so it's very important to have extensive travel at least. If you can get the chance to get to live and work in Singapore or Hong Kong for a couple of years, it's magical.
William Arruda: One last thing I'd like to ask you is whether you have any career-related story to share.
Micky Pant: I'll tell you a funny story, and we actually gave him a job so this has a happy ending. A guy [looking] for a job in golf marketing—you know we had Greg Norman, the brand at Reebok—came in with a large cardboard box under his arm: very large, like something that will hold the television. It was obviously not very heavy but was huge, and he brought it into the room. Out of politeness I didn't ask him [what it was]...he just kept it on a side table and sat down without saying anything about it and started talking.
After a while I couldn't contain my curiosity and I said, "What is in the box?" And he said, "Would you mind if I told at the end of the interview?" And he really got my curiosity, and then we spent half an hour talking about things and finally I said, "Okay the hell with it.... I want to open the box."
William Arruda: What was in the box?
Micky Pant: Well...actually there was nothing. It was an empty box. The point he was trying to make was that it is not what's the content or what you're delivering, but the way in which you present it that's important. You could argue the merits of that argument but the style was fantastic, I thought.
That story's remained with me for years.... because one thing I've realized is that you get people curious, you've got them. You know if you've got their interest...so whatever you do in marketing if you've got them interested, that's the most difficult thing.
William Arruda: That's fantastic, and that's great advice because it is all about standing out. There are so many people with the same credentials—incredible credentials and experience—and really today to be successful and to make sure you're the candidate who gets the job, you need something that makes you stand out.
I am so delighted we got to connect. So thank you so much, Micky.
Micky Pant: Thank you very much, William. I have enjoyed the conversation.
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