“The people who I found to be most world-altering are those with the most preposterous ambitions.” — Michael Fanuele
Our interview with Michael Fanuele was very entertaining, and brought a fresh perspective to the world of marketing and advertising. Michael’s creativity stems from his diverse background in politics, comedy and advertising, which gives him a unique ability to understand human behavior and emotions.
Here are the three things I learned:
- Before stand-up comedy, and before agency life, Michael’s career started in politics, working on Capitol Hill. While he was able to interact regularly with the Secretary of State, the Vice President… etc., he quickly realized that politics was not a place for him. At the time, he felt the main tool used to persuade others were exploiting their fears and insecurities. This self-awareness of what caused him stress helped him quickly pivot his career in a more creative direction which led him to where he is today.
- Agencies and Clients look at new ideas in vastly different ways. When you say an idea is ‘new’ or ‘different’ at an agency, it’s often considered a compliment. Michael found that now working on the client-side, these words often come with less excitement, and an increased burden of proof to prove these ideas will be effective. It’s been an emotional adjustment for him.
- Michael is a true creative mind. He cracked the insight, while working for Unilever’s Laundry Business, that “Dirt is good”. It was a statement against their direct competitor — P&G — who at the time, focused on owning the messaging around ‘keeping clean’. This kernel of an idea eventually spread to a campaign that encouraged kids to go out and play with their parents, leveraging professional athletes and coaches to help moms and their kids go out and play. It shows the power of provocative ideas.
Hope you enjoy listening.
Daniel Rodic is the Co-Founder of Exact Media, which is transforming the world of direct mail by enabling brands owned by companies like P&G, PepsiCo, Unilever and L’Oréal to distribute samples and coupons using the excess space in eCommerce parcels that have already been shipped to consumer.
Daniel: Today on Connections.
Ray: Has it been difficult or was it difficult to adjust to be on the client’s side?
Michael: It’s been brutally difficult and that’s part of the thrill of it. There are different things taken for granted at a big CPG company than there into an ad agency. You know, at a very basic level, every ad agency believes that creativity is force for good to win something is called new or interesting or novel or different, and those are all compliment. That is not an assumption shared in those big company, creativity might be a force for good, new and different might be compliments but not necessarily. They’re the burden of fruit that creativity has to shoulder at a company like General Mills that it doesn’t at a funky ad agency like Falen, and that’s been a difficult emotional adjustment for me.
Daniel: My name is Daniel Rodic and I’m your host at Connections, brought to you by Exact Media. We created this podcast as we realize that a lot of people we spend time with in our day-to-day work, brand managers, marketers, those who are trying to rise quickly in their careers could benefit from hearing the stories of the leaders they look up to in their industry. In every episode, we cover the stories that you’ve never heard of. Where do they grow up? How did they get their first job, or their successes and failures in their career and how did they recover from them? My hope is that you will take away some interesting tidbits and tactics that will help you accelerate your careers. I don’t wanna spend too much time talking about us, but see if context and how we’re involved in the industry. At Exact Media, we work specifically with marketers to help them sample their products to the parcels of online retailers. For example, if you bought running shoes online, we might give you a sample of a healthy granola bar in that parcel. If that interests you at all, visit us at www.exactmedia.io. Now, onto our guest.
Today’s guest is Michael Fanuele. His past is quite interesting. He grew up in an Italian family which suddenly introduced him to a love of food. And serendipitously, he is now the Chief Creative Officer at General Mills, a new role for both the company and really the overall CPG landscape. In this interview, he tells us typical life story but talks a lot about the differences of being on the client side versus the agency side. Here it is, Exact Media’s CEO, Ray Cao interviewing Michael Fanuele.
Ray: So Michael, thank you so much for doing this. Maybe we could start off. Could you just share a little more about your recent role and what is it that you exactly do because this Chief Creative Officer certainly isn’t so common amongst a lot of large package good companies?
Michael: So, I’m the Chief Creative Officer at General Mills which is a new role, not just in the CPG industry but specifically for General Mills. I think the hope was to see if we could make creativity a competitive advantage at a big food company. We’ve traditionally have so many advantages, our scale, our size, our innovation, our marketing muscle, accords of brilliant MBA trained colleagues who I’ve now gotten a chance to know. But creativity hasn’t really been something that the world of big food has flexed. So the idea was at this time, while it seems like the forces of the world are rate against a big package food company, maybe creativity can be part of our salvation.
Ray: Good. Interesting. We’ll jump back into your current role later on but I’m gonna delve it back a few years. What was your childhood like? What were your parents like? Where did you grow up? When you remembered your childhood?
Michael: Yeah. I grew up on Long Island in New York which was terrific. It was a sort of idyllic and suburban as possible, riding bikes, staying out too late. But my parents were off-the-boat immigrants from Italy. So I had the fortune of growing up in family that was food crazy. There wasn’t an occasion without tables overflowing with meatballs and lasagna and pork loins and other amazing delicacies. And I don’t think I realized what an aspect food had on me until I’ve grown up and really until I got a job here at General Mills. One of the first things I realized is, we are a food company. We’re not a marketing company that happens to make food but we’re a good company, and realizing what a primal passion food has been my whole life has made me more inspired to come to work here day in and day out.
Ray: How much did a role did your parents play and where you ended up pursuing your entire career?
Michael: Well, I grew up in a real working class family. I’m the first member of my family to graduate college and I feel wonderfully co-existent in a world of working class, backshore [SP], Italian immigrant, New York Long Island myth. And I guess the more horrified world of colleges and universities and discussions with friends of that New Yorker articles over fancy cocktails. And that’s sort of schizophrenia is I think an advantage for what I’ve done as a brand strategist, because it constantly keeps you both in a culture and observant of that culture, feeling like you’ve got a tribe but you’ve got other tribes as well, keeps you sort of perpetually dislocated and hopefully able to sort of steeping the fresh and the new, in a way that you might not if identity were more stable. My schizophrenia has been a strategic advantage in my career.
Ray: Interesting. So you didn’t actually start in the creative world, right? I mean, you did Victorian Studies and…
Michael: No. No, no, no, no, yeah, sure. Yeah. So, my background is kind of strange. From the time I was a little boy, my passion was politics. I love politics the way other kids loved sports. I’d wake up early on Sunday mornings to watch This Week with David Brinkley and Meet the Press, and I’d read the newspapers and I had posters on my wall with my favorite politicians. And I knew that when I grew up, politics was what I wanted to do, which gave me a great amount of freedom as I was going through college to mess around and study whatever it was that interested me. You don’t really need credentials to work in Politics.
And so I found myself into a very strange program at Vassar College. I got a Victorian Studies which was this amazing investigation of 19th Century Britain from the perspective of its art, and its history, and its politics, and its literature, and its scientific developments. And that cross-cultural understanding of a world of time, of a people, of a people was in hindsight still self-formative to how we ought to see the world as marketers. I mean, you can’t understand the industrial revolution without understanding the political imaginations behind it. You can’t really understand Dickens without understanding the industrial revolution. So all of this stuff is interdependent as is the world, as is life. So in hindsight, studying Victorian England has allowed me to understand culture in a way I’m not sure I could’ve had I just gone deep into the vertical of history, or literature, or business, or politics. But, sorry.
Ray: I was gonna say, so you got out of college and you immediately you went into nothing in the creative world but of something in politics, right?
Michael: That’s right, that’s right. So I got out of college and followed my dream to do politics. I worked on a few congressional campaigns. We won. I got to go to Washington, D.C. I work on Capitol Hill. I walk to work every day under the shadow with the Capitol Dome. I was meeting with the Secretary of State, the Vice President, and the Speaker of the House, and it was awful. It was so cynical. It was so stultifying. It quickly daunted me that the way politics works is by trying to exploit people’s fear and insecurities, so and so will raise your taxes, so and so will cut your healthcare. And I instantly after sort of leaving the very idealistic environment of college felt plunged into a toxic stress pool [SP], that was awful.
And I thought I wanna do politics. I believe in politics but I’m not gonna be good at it if I learn politics from within politics. I needed to go and do something else and down the road get back into that political game in a way that had maybe more integrity to it or kindness to it. And I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do, but I knew all of my friends were in New York. So I went to New York, and I then sketched comedy in college and I missed that world. So I went to New York and I waited tables and I did standup comedy. And eventually got a day job at a really fun, funky ad agency, a place called Mad Dogs & Englishmen.
And as this sort of months rolled on, I realized that was a job that excited me much more than the hard pursuit of standup comedy for which I probably didn’t have the talent to exceed. And I got very excited about what marketing communications could do and not just for business, not just for brand but for people, it excited me. And that’s when I really said to myself maybe I could be an ad man.
Ray: How old were you at the time when you moved to New York and were waiting tables?
Michael: Yeah. I was about 25 when I moved to New York and stumbled upon this place called Mad Dogs & Englishmen. I remember my interview, it was a real formative moment. Robin Danielson was the president and head of strategy at Mad Dogs, which had this fantastic way of interviewing candidates. He just walked with them up and down the streets of New York City looking at things, looking at buildings, looking advertising, gauging how people respond, what they think, what they felt?
So Robin and I are walking up and down the streets of Manhattan and we come to a bus shelter. And she was, “What do you think of that ad? What do you think of that ad right there?” And this is a really exciting ad to me. This is 1996, ’97, way before the famous Dove campaign had ever come out. But this was a cosmetics ad that had a picture of black and white picture of a pretty, ordinary, frumpy woman. This is thrilling to me. I told Robin how refreshing it was that this was a makeup brand, a cosmetics brand for every woman. It wasn’t about supermodels and perfect action, it was about inadequacies and flaws. The real things that make us beautiful that this was lipstick for every woman and that was thrilling.
Robin then turned to me. She said, “Michael, that’s Audrey Hepburn.” And I went, “Oh.” And she rolled her eyes and she said, “Ah, you’re such a planner.” And I didn’t even know what a planner was at the time. I thought everybody in that agency sat around the table making ads. But she explained to me the planners were the people who help shape the ideas behind the advertising, ideas behind the communication based on an understanding of people in the world, and culture and society. They propose the ambition for brand, what it can be, how it can behave and then work with creative to make that vision real, to make that imminent in the world. And that sounded so exciting. And that’s how I became a planner. I became a planner because I didn’t recognized Audrey Hepburn like an idiot.
Ray: Yeah. Was there a memorable project that sort of ignited the, “Ah, this is it. This is what I wanna do for the better part of my life.”
Michael: There were many. There were many that solidified my conviction that this planning thing was thrilling. I remember we were doing a project for Nick at Nite in TV Land, it sounds some old footage of the Rat Pack, never before seen concert footage of Frank and Danny and Dean Martin and that crew, and we had to figure out how to launch this in a way that would excite a younger, modern audience. They didn’t really grow up with these guys. They thought they were relics of a sort of Rat Pack past.
What you do with the planner, you go, “Well, let me do some research. Let me do some consumer understanding. Let me see what people think about the Rat Pack and swing and tuxedos and martinis.” The problem was that they didn’t have much money to do research. They have less $1,000 which is a pretty limited budget if you will start thinking about traditional research, if you’re thinking about focus groups and ethnographies and all the rest. But we had an idea that instead of trying to observe other people interacting with this sort of nascent swing culture that was reemerging, what if we just plunge our self into it?
So I made a few friends, it took that $1,000 and simply have the Saturday night of our lives. We dressed to the nights. We went out. We drank too many martinis. We’re in limousines. We went to underground swing clubs. We lived the Saturday night as if we were the Rat Pack. And I remember halfway through the night, I foggily remember halfway through the night thinking what an amazing privilege to have a job that demands I put on the shoes of other people and walk around, I could feel what life is like in really sort of very real, vivid visceral way.
And I think since then, you know, be it mom struggling on a small budget to wind up their way through Wal-Mart and come out the other side with meals for their family whether it be 25-year-old guys going at the bars on a Friday night insecure and desperate to impress, whether it’s really, really wealthy people looking for fancy cars like Cadillacs or Jaguars, whether it’s construction workers trying to figure out where they wanna have lunch on a Thursday afternoon when they get a few moments to refuel. The job of being a brand strategist is the privilege of putting yourself into the world of these people who might be nothing like you and coming way bigger and better and wiser for that experience.
Ray: In your 20s, I mean, I imagine tons of like lot of good stuff and fun, but did you think about doing other things or were you pretty sat on in and pursue this path?
Michael: I always have and I still do harbor the ambition that one day I will go back to the world of politics. I just was lucky enough to opt from advertising job to advertising job with people that made me smarter and bigger and bolder and better. And the appeal of leaving this industry has diminished. I really like the band I get to jam with.
Ray: Do you ever think about mixing the work that you do with politics?
Michael: Sure. Sure. And here, General Mills for example, so much of the work we do is by its nature political. When you’re talking about transparency of a big food company and the GMO to bay and taking artificial preservatives and flavors out of food, I mean, food is political. So, there is a mix. And there have been points in my career when I was party teams that have done political work. When I was at Fallon, we were the creative strategist behind the campaign for marriage quality, for example. So I’ve sort of delved into politics. But no, I feel like I’ve got a great, big job to do now and who knows what the next chapter of life brings, but this is pretty good.
Ray: How did you go from post Mad Dogs that you went off to JWT and then eventually one of the founding partners of Walrus?
Michael: Yeah. So I was at Mad Dogs for about four years and it’s such a magical ad agency but I felt like I wanted to explore the wider industry 0:19:48.6 was out there. Nick Cohen who was the creative director at Mad Dogs did the most generous thing. He called his friend John Hegarty in London and said, “Can I send you somebody for a while to work with you?” And what an honor to go to London and work at the time what I thought was the very greatest ad agency and the history of the world was daunting, was flattering.
But I came back to New York from that spent at DVH in London. We’re very convinced that there were many notes and tones and colors in the world of marketing and I wanted to play. I wanted to dabble with as many of them as possible. So I wanted to leave Mad Dogs and work with different people and different teams. And I met Bob Jeffrey who was the CEO of J.W. Thompson at the time. And he said, ” Listen Michael, the creative part of the advertising job is a critical one, but there is the business part as well, and come and work at J. Walter Thompson. We’ve got lots of sophisticated clients to steep in the world of business.”
You’d come away from that experience a better and smarter for it, and he was right. I mean, we had to work wih telecommunications industry, in the financial services industry, in the technology industry. And I came away from a year at JWT better steeped in the ways of business and ironically, more appreciative of the power of creativity to shape that world of business, and then buffed around. So, JWT sent me to London to run a strategy globally for their Unilever businesses. And that was a thrill in doing research that took you from coffee with teenagers in Shanghai, to supermarket shopping with moms in Dubai, to understanding what health and hygiene means for student in India, and really getting a sense of what soccer, what football means in a country like Brazil. I mean, the dizzying insight that I was privileged to have working in a marketing job around the globe, that took me around the globe was fantastic.
But as things happen, yeah, you get married, you have baby and the strings of home pull hard. So we came back to New York and with some old friends from Mad Dogs & Englishmen actually started this place called Walrus which is great, which is still one of the very, very finest, most fun and funky and cool and creative and smart ad agencies in the world. But it became apparent very, very early to me that that wasn’t where my passion was. My passion was that in growing a business of my own. It wasn’t in growing an ad agency. It’s just not where my passions were. I didn’t have that sort of entrepreneurial drive.
So, I moved on to Havas at the time called Euro RSCG, and had a chance to meet one of my creative heroes, to work with one of my creative heroes, Jeff Clain [SP] who’s worked for Miller, had been amongst my favorite of all time. And, wow, the run at that agency was fantastic from most interesting man in the world, Jaguar to Charles Schwab. We take an agency that had not really had a creative heart beat for a while and helped to become agency of the year, helps to make it a sort of creative powerhouse, which was terrific. And then Pat Fallon called and when Pat Fallon calls, you’ve talked to him.
Ray: Pick up the phone.
Michael: You do. And the opportunity to come and work at Fallon, again, another agency that I admired from the time I was a nerdy baby planner was too delicious to refuse. So, me and my wife and now our three kids moved to Minneapolis. And the first thing I did was recruit Jeff Clain to come and join us there, and we had a great run of it there. We had a great run of it there. In fact, I imagine I’d still be there if I didn’t get this opportunity to have a very different kind of adventure as a client.
Ray: I was gonna switch bits of the personal side. I mean, what was it like having your first child and deciding to start a company? Your wife must have thought you were crazy. What were some of the big lessons that you take away from it?
Michael: I think the opposite. I think what I felt at least when we had our first kid, when Oliver was born, was an amazing liberation. I felt like the important thing, the most important thing was to be able to look this kid in the eye down the road and say, “Follow your dreams. Follow your heart. Act on your instinct.” Not as the cliché that generally is, but to say that with the authenticity and the sincerity of having done it myself. So ironically, the moment when I should’ve been feeling the most responsibility as a parent, I felt the most liberation to be me. At the same time, if you’re gonna take risks and fail, best do it while the kids are young before you’re paying college tuition bills. Oh no, those early, tender days of daddy and mommy-hood are, you know, those are party times.
Ray: Do you have any rules that maybe has changed over the years but how do you manage your family life? You haven’t gone any less busy. Do you have rules that you set around here is sort of the schedule that I live by. Here’s what I won’t touch or do you go seven days a week?
Michael: One of the great things about the world of marketing and advertising is that for as brutal as the schedule is, as demanding as the schedule is, you’re working with people with that deep appreciation and understanding of human relationships. And while there are many dinners and soccer games, that parent-teacher conferences and even birthdays that we’ve all missed, I think everybody knows that when it matters, you’re allowed to drop work and be there for your family. You’re allowed to show up for your family.
The probably I think is that family time then becomes the exception to another life, chaotic work life. That sucks. So, I don’t know, I mean, I think I tried to do what we all tried to do which is to be there for my family when I’m with my family and be there for my colleagues when I’m with my colleagues. And most of the time I fail at both of those. That said, you know, it is a particular problem for moms in our industry because they are still shouldered with the burden of expectation that they are double parents and doubly good at work. I mean, it’s a difficult task and I am amazed at all of the women, all of the moms I have gotten to work with who pull it off with such sort of elegance and class and heart and passion. Jeez, if they could that, I could do a much better job.
Ray: As a starting conversation with someone in the U.S. where they said, they only have 13 weeks or so after their pregnancy and they have to go back to work and, you know, it’s crazy because you compare it to other countries like Canada, I think you get about a year and it’s unbelievable to how much, you know, they’ve got to sacrifice to make it both work.
Michael: Yeah. Again, for an industry, marketing, advertising, communications that needs to be so deeply humane in its art, we tend to be very inhumane in our operations.
Ray: What does your schedule look like? How do you try to best make things work? What does a week look like in…
Michael: Well, honestly it’s changed dramatically since being a client. The nature of an ad agency is a little bit Scooby Doo van crazy, you know, working late nights, you’re working weekends, you’re on the road, you’re pitching business, you’re changing presentations in hotel rooms at 2:00 the night before, in a middle of a crisis, an emergency develops on another brand. It is nuts. And one of the many refreshing things about becoming a client is that the pressure is different. The pressure isn’t really about the schedule and the time. It’s a different kind of emotional pressure.
So, I’ve really enjoyed a schedule that left me get home for dinner more often that lets me get to soccer practice for my kids more frequently that lets me drive the carpool in the neighborhood more than I ever could. The schedule as a client is much more reliable, which is the neat thing. But there’s a tradeoff as well. I mean, the zaniness of agency life breathes a camaraderie that is really darn special. And when you are working those not so hours, when you are taking those three-legged trips around the country, when you are changing these presentations at 2:00 in the morning the night before the big pitch, you develop a real camaraderie, real strong bonds of friendship. It’s probably what I miss most about agency life. The band of brothers and sisters miss that develops.
Ray: What was the one of the most memorable projects that you worked on that had given all the big global brands that you touched in the agency career?
Michael: Globally, one of the most rewarding projects I did was working on Unilever’s laundry business, where we cracked an idea about dirt being good. Dirt is good was our line, was our idea. And then the real provocative challenge to P&G who wanted everything clean and white and bright and colorful, it’s within attempt to be a bit more real. The dirt is great, you want your kids out there get messy and mucky, you don’t want them on the sideline, you wanna participating and playing. When kids get dirty, they develop. And being a laundry brand that understood that, we thought was a really sort of cool, fresh, honest, modern, progressive stance to take.
Where it became interesting though is when it went beyond just doing pretty and pretty provocative advertising when we really started to implement programs to get parents, to get moms, and their kids feeling the benefits of getting mucky together. So we did this great programs at Europe called, “Will you be my coach?” Where the brand became a platform upon which kids could stand and say, “Hey mom, hey dad, will you play with me?” And I know it just means stand there and goal and let me score every time, but will you really play with me? Will you try to beat me, because when you do, I think we’ll have more fun. I think I’ll learn more and I think you’ll enjoy me more.” So, I mean, we work with some really first-rate coaches from the professional sports world to design some really cool promotions and programs to get moms and kids getting dirty together, playing together. And man, that helps great. That helped good.
Ray: I’m gonna absolutely repeat those questions. It does feel like you have never messed up. It’s like everything is in pretty flawless, but have you boxed anything? I mean, was there like a particular client where it’s like, “Oh, dear.”
Michael: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. Well, one of the biggest, saddest regrets of my career was helping to launch Verizon, Verizon Wireless in fact. We didn’t even know the name of the company. We just knew a bunch of small companies. We’re gonna be the largest telecommunications company in the country, and we needed to come up with an idea of positioning, an essence for what this new telecommunications powerhouse was going to be all about. And I beg and pleaded with the client to let me do all of the research myself. I think as a planner, you need to be in there talking to the people, feeling people, understanding people.
And in all the research we did, I hardly ever got passed my first question to people which was simply, “Tell me about your best phone call ever.” And it’s the open floodgates of memory and emotion and feeling, see people have really special phone calls. But what struck me is that almost to a person, everybody’s desk phone call was a phone call in which they heard something, not said something. “I heard my daughter is pregnant. I heard the tumor is benign. I heard my son is coming home from Afghanistan.” And I thought, “Holy cow. For years, phone companies went saying, “Pick up the phone and talk. Pick up the phone and get [SP]. Pick up the phone and connect.” It’s a no, no, no. The real magic happens when you pick up the phone and you shut your mouth.
So, I wrote a brief that I was so damn proud of about a communications company that believed in the power of silence. And I thought this is still brilliant and still clever. And how did we started to work with it? Tension started to develop between me and the creative team, so I don’t think they were as excited about the idea as I was. But instead of kind of wiggling with them to figure out a place I was creatively fertile for them, I really stubbornly clung to my belief, in my instincts, in my perspective, and it was a disaster. It was a disaster.
The early work we did a lot with that company was almost incoherent, because we were trying to talk about silence or the power of communications, but we’re trying to jazz people up with a big mist of this new company. And I blame myself for that because the first rule of strategy is that strategy is only as good as the work it inspires. And I was still in love with my own apparent cleverness that I forgot what mattered which was the work we needed to produce at the end of the day. So that was a disaster. And hopefully, a lesson I took to heart throughout the rest of my career even to the point where, for the rest of my career, even writing briefs with something I approach very differently. They did like a brief format felt too sort of solid and too foundational and too etched in stone. It’s just blank pieces of paper and scribbles with pens and notions and a conversation and scrolls on walls, the way in which I started to brief creative changed dramatically. It became a lot more loose as a result of that disaster set us of it.
Ray: How did you go from spending, I think it was more than 10 years in the agency side to switching to the client’s side I guess now into General Mills?
Michael: Yeah I wasn’t looking to be a client. I love the world of ad agency and the people I get to meet, the diversity of projects and challenges I got to contend with. But I got a phone call about this opportunity at General Mills, and my first instinct was no, no, no, no, no, there were big concerns of corporation. That’s not right. Not a good fit for me. But the CMO at the time was a man named Mark Addicks who is, I mean, has become such a sort of personal hero to me. He is just bright and brilliant and he carbonates the air around him with ideas and a sense of possibility. And even though I wasn’t sure about General Mills, the culture, Mark Addicks demand was guy I wanted to get to know.
So I met him and I was absolutely blown away. And I said, “But Mark, you’re different than everybody else there. You know, it’s a culture a sort of pleated khakis and mom jeans. You’re different.” And he said, “Well, come back and meet one more person.” So I came back and I met a woman named Ann Simonds who is now our CMO, who’s now my boss, and an amazing woman, so authentic and genuine and a mindful that all of our work is work that needs to connect with real people and real families and real homes. She’s so deep, but she was great. And I said, “Ann, you’re different.” You know, “You and Mark are different. Nobody else at General Mills is like you.” She said, “Well, come back and meet one more person.”
And this went on for a few months. I’d come back and I’d be person after person and come away going, “Wow. They’re awesome and neat and interesting and smart, funny,” and I don’t know that through the process of getting to meet more people at General Mills, I became so convinced that we as a company, we’re going to be a great company but me as a person to be a bigger, bolder, better, smarter person by [inaudible 0:40:14] of working with these people at this place. So, I got really excited about what we could do that the topper though really was getting a sense of what we as a company were doing to our food, to make a food that was more worthy of the world’s love. So, taking sugar out of yogurt, taking artificial everything out of cereal, taking antibiotics out of our chicken, investing, buying companies like Annie’s and Epic and Larabar that really meet people where their food values are today.
I became so convinced that we were a big food company that was going to make great food. And becoming part of that, in some way contributing to fixing the really fucked up relationship America has got with food became such a thrill to me. And I guess since only that goes back to growing up in a big Italian food obsessed family. I promised myself during my interview process at General Mills that if I got this job, every day I would come to work knowing that I work at a food company. I wouldn’t forget that.
Ray: Was it difficult to adjust to be on the client’s side?
Michael: It’s been brutally difficult and that’s part of the thrill of it. There are different things taken for granted, a big CPG company than there are at an ad agency. You know, at a very basic level, every ad agency believes that creativity is a force for good. So when something is called new or interesting or novel or different, those are all compliments. That is not an assumption shared at most big company. Creativity might be a force for good. New and different might be compliments, but not necessarily. They’re the burden of proof that creativity has to shoulder at a company like General Mills that it doesn’t at a funky ad agency like Falen. And that’s been a difficult emotional adjustment for me.
Ray: What do you think is the recipe to working well together?
Michael: I think at the end of the it all, we will do good work if we work as our fully human styles, but we’ve all been in that situation where before the meeting starts, you’re talking about the TV show you saw the night before. You’re talking about the movie you saw that weekend. You’re talking about your kids, your passion, your favorite sports team, the new Beyoncé, so whatever. You’re talking about the stuff of life. And then the meeting starts and you click into your work mode and all of that lovely textured contradictory humanity is sacrificed on an altar of black and whiteness. And I think whether it’s an agency, a big corporation, the small boutique, I don’t think it matters.
I think the more we show up as our fully human idiosyncratic, charming, lovely, insecure, messed up, egotistical, delightful spells, the better our work will be. At the end of the day, that’s all marketing does. All marketing does, it make human connections, it make human connections between brands and people. How can we do that without being as human as we possibly can as we make it?
Ray: I’m curious, have you had any mentors that have been influential to you? And if so, what
Michael: Yeah, I’ve had tons of mentors. Starting with Robin Danielson who’s now Robin Hafitz, who’s my first boss at Mad Dogs & Englishmen and she was brilliant, steely, top of her yell class brilliantly educated mind, and yet, still fun and playful. Sometimes she’d consult the I Ching, the Chinese psychic oracle to help her crack strategies for brands only because it was toy, it was a way of playing and a way of being playful. And Robin as a mentor taught me that a steely brain becomes better when it’s sprinkled with a little bit of steeliness. And that’s a difficult lesson to remember and time to stress but a real critical one.
Bob Jeffery at JWT was an amazing mentor. He was my boss on 9/11. And the way he reached out to protect every single person, hundreds of people who worked for him was a remarkable reminder that leaders don’t lead teams, they lead people. Such a human touch. And then, getting to know Jeff Clain as a creative people has been sort of systolic standing. Jeffrey really believes that if we bring the full force of our humanity to everything we do, it will be beautiful. That’s a great reminder. And so, I’ve had great mentors, and coaches, and friend and colleagues throughout my career.
Ray: Definitely about stress, being in a stressful situation. Do you have any rituals or routines that you try to stick with to manage stress? Do you meditate? Do you do certain breathing exercises, go to the gym? What do you do to stay focus and sane?
Michael: You know, I’ve tried to do it all. I’ve done yoga. I’ve started to practice mindfulness and none of it really works for me, and I think it’s because, I actually enjoy the thrill that stressful work situations provide. I mean, that’s exciting when the stakes are high, when the days are big, when the moments count. So, no, I think like most people, you know, 3:00 in the morning when you sort of wake up and there’s a fog in your mind, something special stands out and those are probably the moments of real insight. So I don’t know, work hard so that you sleep and then keep one eye open and good things happen.
Ray: Are you the early riser or you wake up pretty late?
Michael: No, no. No. Well, I’ve had to become an early riser because I’ve got kids who need breakfasts and need to get off to school. But no, no, I think I’m still on that ad agency time table of really getting go until at 11:00 in the morning.
Ray: So you’re out the bed pretty late, I imagine as well?
Michael: Well, it’s the golden age of TV. So we’re off to bed late. There’s so much to watch. If you’re going to bed early, you’re not watching enough stuff.
Ray: Are you a big reader?
Michael: Yes, I love reading.
Ray: What was the last best book that you read?
Michael: Probably The Girls by Emma Cline. I hate non-fiction. I hate business books. It’s in my life doing business. It’s in my life doing non-fiction. When I read, I want to escape into this wonderful world of stories and people and subtlety and character. When I teach classes on strategic planning and advertising, I always recommended people read short stories and very long novels, but that’s a really sort of really good insight into who people are and what they’re about and what their motivations are. So I just finished reading The Girls by Emma Cline. It’s her first novel. I know it’s sort of I guess the heat of the summer. But it’s an amazing story of how a pretty privileged girl in the 1960s appends her life by finding herself part of what’s essentially the Manson Family cult, how a nice girl finds herself with the wrong crowd doing some really hideous thing. And it’s just great exploration that puts you inside the mind, inside the body, inside the beating heart of a vulnerable 14-year-old girl, which is a new territory for me. And I was just amazed by this author’s power of insight and observation.
Ray: I’m curious. I mean, you’ve done so much already. What do you still have left to accomplish? I mean, that you strike me as a very thoughtful, intentional person. What’s still left for you in your bucket list whether personally or professionally?
Michael: Well, I wanna do the job that I have very, very well. I want to prove that a big food company can be a big food company. You know, it’s an industry that’s battered and, you know, pure company is like arts or being acquired by corporate raters. They don’t believe that they can make good stuff anymore, so they might as well just try to make good margins. And we as a company believe there is a role for General Mills, a really important valuable role for a big food company like General Mills in the world. And I want to define the expectations of the known universe by proving that right. I really believe in what we’re doing. The other thing I wanna do is, I wanna teach high school English, that would be a lot of fun.
Michael: I don’t know. You know, I love English. I love literature and I realize that for me, my English teachers introduce to me to a love of language and a love of ideas and a love of expression that has in many ways made me the person that I am. This thing would be such a delight, such a thrill, such a reward to help kids fall in love with the power of words to take the complex feelings that are inside them and make them powerful things outside of them. And yeah, and heck yeah, I’d like to do something in politics again.
Ray: Do you ever ask yourself what drives you? What have you done all the things that you’ve done? Was there something growing up? Was there just [inaudible 0:52:39]? What is it?
Michael: I’m adopted, so I live in a perpetual state of insecurity and neediness. I want people to love me though. That’s my primary drive, insecurity.
Ray: I wouldn’t be…
Michael: I’m only half joking.
Ray: But I wouldn’t be surprised if, you know, insecurity was a big driver for many of the most successful people that we know, right? It’s certainly a big thing. Final question for you. You’ve come across a ton of talented in General Mills itself is an organization of thousands and thousands of exceptional people, what do you think are some of the characteristics or trait that make the most successful ones stand out?
Michael: I think the most successful people I’ve worked with have an ability to carbonate the air around them, to take a situation that is flat and stayed, and predictable, and carbonated with some excitement, with some parts, with some vest. And some do it by intent of being funny, interesting, deeply human and authentic colleagues. Some do it by sheer force of brilliant ideas and brilliant thinking. Some do it by kind of authorial command of an organization. But I think that the people who are most successful are those who aim towards the ridiculously high ambition of reconstituting the molecules in the world, not just moving around the pegs. That’s it, that’s it. I think that the people who I found to be most world-altering are those with the most preposterous ambitions.
Ray: Michael, thank you so much. I know…
Michael: Sure. Was that good? Was that all right?
Ray: That was. It’s probably one of my most favorite interviews here. I think I’ve got to meet you in person, yeah.
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