Michael Lee: General Mills hires a chief creative officer – is this crazy or the future?

The appointment of a chief creative officer was announced the other day.

That’s not big news if it’s an ad agency appointment. But this was General Mills announcing the hiring of Michael Fanuele (below), former chief strategy officer of ad agency Fallon in Minneapolis, as its chief creative officer.

General Mills is a company more associated with getting America up and running in the mornings with Cheerios, Wheaties and Pillsbury dough boys. A no-nonsense food giant, whose brands we enjoy every day. I can see why Apple, Google or Facebook would go out and hire a chief creative officer. But General Mills?

DSC_1224I worked with Michael Fanuele when he was chief strategy officer at Euro RSCG (now Havas). He’s one of the smartest, passionate, inspiring and infectious people I’ve ever met in the business, and also a brilliant presenter (and one I would never recommend following in a presentation) so I called him to get some insight into this.

I started by asking the obvious question: What on earth does a chief creative officer do within a company like General Mills? Overall he sees the role as “sending a message. A commitment from General Mills to smart, innovative business thinking and great creative execution.” Adding that General Mills had made “lots of smart creative and innovative moves in the business space. Now we need to match those moves in marketing.”

Earlier this month, General Mills bought Annie’s, one of the largest organic food companies in the country, and that sounds like one of those creative moves Michael was referring to.

Going further he sees the role in a few ways. Within General Mills he sees a role “working with the brand people, to inspire and influence them.” I think he’ll be a great talent to bring in and inspire the General Mills brands.

Beyond that he sees a role that starts with strong brand strategy leading directly to great work. “Agencies have always allied strategy and creative; that was my job inside the agency. Make sure that strategy allowed great work to flourish. But it’s a new job inside clients.” The important point here to me is that Michael will be focused not only on brand strategy, but production as well. That’s an important and new role, getting marketers to focus on creating great stand-out ideas, and then making sure that they’re flawlessly produced.

Within the agency partners he sees the role as one that signals the end of relationships “based on a toxic cynicism.”

And undermining the myth, “Clients think agencies don’t understand their business, agencies think clients don’t understand creativity.”

In terms of getting the work better, “I’m here to help our brand people evaluate work. To move out of the kill-it culture. To help people see the difference between judging an idea and nurturing one.”

All good news to me.

So is this appointment madness or the future?

I’m leaning heavily to the latter.

Firstly, a big “Bravo!” to General Mills CMO Mark Addicks who made the hiring. It continues a trend of marketers bringing in very creatively minded ad agency people like Jonathan Mildenhall at Airbnb, Dana Anderson at Mondelez, Ann Bologna at Trip Advisor — all senior, very creative people now having huge influence right at the center of brands.

I believe we will see more of this type of hiring, especially in companies like Kraft, Mondelez and General Mills, where their brands have been around for a while and likely need a bit of a jump start.

Marketers understand that brand management is less and less about “managing” and more and more about creating brands that believe in something, that consumers want to engage with, enjoy and share. I’ve spoken many times about the end of the brand manager and the emergence of the brand creative director, who leads a brand like an editorial director leads a magazine, a conductor leads an orchestra, or a chief creative officer leads an ad agency.

I suppose the last question is the biggest one of all. And one that again questions the future of agencies. Have we reached a point where the most talented people in the ad business have recognized that they now, in truth, have very little influence on brands? That agencies are being moved more and more to the periphery, and that the only way they can get back to the center is by moving to the client side?

And is it the only real way for them to get back a little of the oldest aphrodisiac of all — power?

This article first appeared in Forbes.

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