Coca-Cola and Ms Mary
Mary Minnick Ruffles Feathers in All Directions
Mary Minnick, Coca-Cola’s designated change agent, is sending chills down the spines of the genteel Atlanta company’s marketing ranks, challenging long-held convention and sending back to the drawing board agency work designed to revive the brand’s iconic status.
Her no-nonsense, risk-taking approach is already winning over investors. “Feathers need to be ruffled at Coca-Cola,” said Bonnie Herzog, beverage analyst for Citigroup’s Smith Barney. “It has desperately needed shakeup for a very long time.”
'Scary Mary' And shakeup is what the beverage giant is getting -- albeit it’s not always popular with insiders. In fact, Ms. Minnick’s tough-as-nails manner and willingness to unapologetically change gears have inspired nicknames like “Scary Mary” and “Minnick the Cynic.”
Indeed, Ms. Minnick has told Coca-Cola’s ad agencies her loyalties are not with them but “with brand Coke,” said an executive close to the marketer. Her take-charge influence can be seen in reworked creative for Coca-Cola Zero that broke Aug. 29 with stronger brand attributes than the original “Chilltop” ad created by Crispin Porter & Bogusky, Miami. Executives close to Coca-Cola said the new spot wasn’t created by Crispin but assigned to a team from Fitzgerland & Co., Atlanta.
Steve Heyer Described as time-sensitive, results-oriented and opinionated, Ms. Minnick has little patience for pretense or politics, inviting comparisons with Coke’s former president and chief operating officer, Steve Heyer. But while she shares his hard-bitten style, she has an advantage he didn’t: the pedigree of an insider and support of the board. “The culture rejected Steve because he was Steve,” said one executive close to Coke who requested anonymity. Ms. Minnick, on the other hand, a 22-year Coke veteran, knows how to game the system.
“Mary has had a significant impact on the organization in the short amount of time that she’s been in her new job,” said an insider. “She has taken her keen understanding of the business, the company and system, both its strengths and weaknesses, and used this perspective and her very sharp business acumen to drive focus on an agenda for growth. She has not only purposed her team but has engaged and gotten commitment from both the executive committee and the board of directors.”
'Shortage of focus' “We don’t have a shortage of ideas,” the straight-shooting, 45-year-old president of marketing strategy and innovation told analysts after taking the job in May (she had been president of Coca-Cola Asia). “We have a shortage of focus, leading to a bit of an inability to prioritize and make hard choices,” she said. “I’m confident we can do a better job of embracing risk.”
“She’s fast, smart and brave,” said Ian Rowden, former vice president and worldwide director of advertising for Coke and now executive vice president and chief marketing officer at Wendy’s. “She’s done a great job in navigating the system.”
But that doesn’t mean she isn’t rankling the ranks. In a May meeting in Buenos Aires with 100 Coca-Cola executives to review long-awaited advertising work aimed at restoring Coke’s iconic status, she made a one-hour presentation about her expectations for the brand, and made it clear that the ads ordered up by Coke marketing executives Mark Mathieu and Esther Lee wouldn’t be aired, according to an attendee.
“Mary hated all of the iconic work and killed it,” said an executive close to Coca-Cola. “She didn’t like the iconic brief and didn’t think it had enough to do with why you wouldn’t substitute Pepsi for Coke. There’s a pressure [inside Coke] to be the most optimistic brand in the world, but Mary is looking for irreplaceability and finding things nobody else could substitute for.”
(Last month, the marketer confirmed it had “widened” its search for a big advertising idea but denied Ms. Minnick shot down the work at the May confab. Coca-Cola refused to make Ms. Minnick available to comment for this story.)
Bringing in former executives With time lost on failed efforts, tensions have been high between Ms. Minnick and Mr. Mathieu and Ms. Lee, said the executive, though Ms. Minnick views them both as bright and well-meaning. Ms. Minnick has also has brought on former executives that have had marketing success in the past, including Len Fink and Shelly Hochron, formerly of the in-house agency that later became Edge Creative, and Sergio Zyman, the former chief marketing officer who hired her and now heads the MDC Partners’ Zyman Group. Mr. Zyman refused to discuss his current relationship with Coke and Coke representatives have denied any knowledge of his involvement.
But he is willing to comment on Ms. Minnick. “Anytime you’re in a position of power, you’re going to polarize people,” said Mr. Zyman, whose own opinionated manner earned him the nickname “Aya-cola.” “This is not a Carly Fiorina, where she comes out of nowhere. She’s a really well-rounded and very intelligent person. She’s traveled the world and trained herself and has tremendous experience.”
Launching Fruitopia Mr. Zyman relayed a story about when Ms. Minnick presented her strategy for the launch of Fruitopia in the 1990s and a public-relations executive argued that the press would position the move as Coke’s response to Snapple. “But we are,” replied Ms. Minnick, according to Mr. Zyman. “Do you think we’re doing this because we have nothing to do? We’re doing this as a strategic entry.”
Ms. Minnick is a “360-degree executive,” said one observer, noting she has helped transform the fountain unit from operationally driven to sales driven; developed the noncarbonated-soft-drink strategy for the U.S. bottle and can unit; navigated complex bottler systems in Asia Pacific and created a strategy for noncarbonated drinks and coffee as president of the South Pacific division and later as president of Coca-Cola Japan.
Under Ms. Minnick’s watch, Coke’s Asian operation sold more than 3.5 billion unit cases, or 18% of the company’s total volume in 2004. Those sales drew $4.7 billion in revenue, about 21% of the company’s total. There, noncarbonated drinks were a third of the total volume, nearly twice worldwide average.
Her grand plan Her grand plan for the total company, she told analysts, includes kick-starting “quick wins” through products, packages and marketing ideas from around the world and expanding the benefits of existing brands to respond to consumer demands; setting priorities for the innovation pipeline; providing a fact-based business strategy and building a world-class marketing organization; and speeding up marketing success rates, particularly on brand Coke. She also wants to “refine” Coke’s iconic brand effort “further to create a more consistent and meaningful brand-communication strategy globally.”
Said an analyst on the call: “She said the right things.” Ms. Minnick “knows how to [move product quickly] better than anyone in the company and if she can affect that globally, that would be huge in terms of helping to turn the business around and possibly getting to the growth targets they’re talking about,” said Smith Barney’s Ms. Herzog.
Doing so will take some cage-rattling. “She absolutely is tough -- but I’d say she’s had to be to get us all moving in the same direction and toward a set of priorities that will make a difference,” said a second company insider. “She does not accept mediocrity, the lack of commitment or confidence or an unwillingness to take responsibility for one’s part in the mission.”
Not the next CEO Several observers close to the marketer, however, express doubt that Ms. Minnick will be elevated to the executive suite because those very qualities won’t cut it in the CEO post now occupied by Neville Isdell.
“She’s not going to become the next CEO,” said the executive close the company. “She’s considered to be very good at marketing and has good strategic insights, but those are not right set of tools to take the top job or be executive in waiting.”