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From Analysts and Marketers to Analytic Marketers

Bain Partner Cesar Brea discusses the evolution of marketing analytics with Mike Mickunas, former global vice president of insights and analytics at Kellogg’s.


From Analysts and Marketers to Analytic Marketers

Bain Partner Cesar Brea, who leads the Bain's Advanced Analytics practice, has an in-depth discussion about the evolution of marketing analytics with Mike Mickunas, who recently stepped down from his role as global vice president of insights and analytics at Kellogg’s to take on a new role as a professor at Michigan State University’s Eli Broad College of Business. Mickunas covers the marketing analytics shifts that he experienced over his career trajectory at Kellogg’s, including lessons learned both internally as well as externally from companies inside and outside the consumer packaged goods industry; he discusses how chief marketing officers can use the three P’s of partners, planning and people to adapt their company’s marketing analytics capabilities to meet the present moment; and he details what he’s doing in his teaching role to prepare budding analytic marketers to hit the ground running.

Read the transcript of the conversation below:

CESAR BREA: Hello, everybody. Our guest today is Mike Mickunas. Mike is formerly the global head of marketing insights and analytics at Kellogg's, and he's now on the faculty of his MBA alma mater, the Broad School at Michigan State, where he is teaching and leading the development of a new curriculum on his areas of expertise. Welcome, Mike, and thank you again for agreeing to talk with us on a topic we both care a lot about, which is building teams to support the evolution of marketing and figuring out how to influence the organizations more broadly beyond that.

MIKE MICKUNAS: Great, thanks for setting this up. Great to be here and talking to you today. It is a topic near and dear to my heart as well. So excited to go through some things and think about where the industry is going.

BREA: Fantastic. So first question, it's completely off topic, but it's important, obviously, now as we're all going through a very strange period. Where are you, and how are you managing through Covid?

MICKUNAS: Great question. We have been right here in sunny Battle Creek since early spring, March, whenever that was, and straight into summer. So this is home, with 20-plus years at the Kellogg Company, Battle Creek, Michigan, the start of where it is. But fortunately for us, knock wood, we've personally all been healthy. Relatives and friends have been healthy.

But really, just looking forward to seeing the spread of the virus stop and have everybody be able to get back to safe, healthy, active lives. But we've been OK, and I've been able to keep myself more than busy during the quarantine and shutdown.

BREA: Good. Good to hear. I hope it stays that way, certainly.

So you were at Kellogg's for a long time and ended up in a pretty important job. Tell us a little bit about your career path—what you did, why you did it, how things built on themselves?

MICKUNAS: Yeah, absolutely. I started in my mid-20s, classic entry-level-type role, associate manager or whatever the title might have been at the time, for market reporting and analytics, I think it was. But really standard stuff back in the day of looking at the IRI- and Nielsen-type information, understanding what's driving share performance for brands within our categories, a little bit of macroeconomic modeling for category demand, longer-term future-type work.

But really, just nuts and bolts start to analytics, which then, just beauty of Kellogg, was able to continue to just pursue interests and go into more, what we'd call at the time, more classic consumer insights and analytics, and understanding psychology a bit more, understanding food development, food testing, new product adoption. And just across the range of years, more and more breadth, which, fortunately, also led to more and more responsibility, leading teams within the US business, which is really where I grew up, through the US business, the cereal category at the time.

But over the years, we acquired Keebler, so the company got much larger in terms of snacking, with cookies and crackers, brands like Cheez-It, and just continued to grow, if you will, the portfolio and my responsibilities within that. And then, in the last several years, working more on a global level, culminating in the global vice president of insights and analytics, really partnering with our chief growth officer and the chief growth officer's leadership team to move our practices forward across the world and fill gaps and address challenges in markets like in the Asia region, Latin America, Europe.

Kellogg's had historically been a pretty strong US-centric footprint, but over the last 15 years, really diversifying into more of a global food company with the snacking portfolio and acquisition of Pringles. So just took on more responsibility, and we'll talk more about it today, but especially in the last few years, a bigger focus on how to apply that not just from a brand management perspective but from a more fully commercial, customer-oriented perspective as well.

BREA: That sounds like one of those careers where no good deed goes unpunished. [LAUGHS]

MICKUNAS: And it's of the things that I always valued about Kellogg's. It was definitely a culture—it is still a culture—where you can help identify needs, organizational needs and opportunities, and run a path towards it. It's never been a culture of just stick to your knitting, right?

BREA: Right.

MICKUNAS: It's been very opening up in terms of driving towards progress.

BREA: There was a theme you mentioned, that you'd spoke about, starting out with more, quote, "left-brained" kind of orientation but being drawn to the psychological aspects and literally understanding better what goes on in people's heads. So I want to pick up that thread later on when we come back, because you mentioned interest in influencing organizations. And that's something I want to come to.

But maybe first, tell us a little bit about—I mean, that's the career progression, but tell us more about—some of the more important results wins you had along the way, key insights that underpinned those.

MICKUNAS: Yeah, absolutely. I think it's definitely been a journey. But what I think, if I look back on it, one of most rewarding things is, I think, helping move the culture from what I'd consider to be more of a brand-centric, a little bit of an internally focused mindset and behavior organizationally, to much more of an external focus, understanding consumer first and being able to understand the more complete ecosystem that our brands, categories, portfolios play within.

And that sounds like a nice headline, but obviously, a lot goes into getting that done. And it's really culminated. Here in the end, we now have what we call the "deploy for growth" global strategy that has consumers at the very foundation of it in terms of win-through occasions. So by understanding how you and I eat, sleep and behave across the day and how that moves into the choices we make, we're able to then build our where-to-play priorities from that and then how to succeed within those.

So that's probably one of the biggest things, I'd say, early in my career, and that wouldn't be early in the company's history, but at that time in the company's history, a very brand-centric mindset.

BREA: Yeah.

MICKUNAS: Now being much more market-, consumer-centric. So that was big.

I think the other thing that's come through is within analytics specifically. There was a time, for sure, where analytics was pretty much a few smart folks off in the corner developing coefficients, right? And that's great you've got that capability, but you're not creating impact through that.

So a key thing was what I call more mainstreaming, or demystifying, the potential within analytics and getting our teams out of the corner and more focused and dedicated right in with business teams and solving problems and more real-time aspects, which has helped both the uptake, if you will, on the commercial side, but it also tremendously helped the power and skills of the statisticians, modelers, analytic people, because they had better context, understanding, of what the issues were and what were practical solutions.

BREA: Right.

MICKUNAS: So that's been-- those two were big. The other piece, I'd say, within a Kellogg mindset and some key insights we've had across the years, is when you've got a large organization with a diverse portfolio, you need ways to make sense of the world. And we used a number of different segmentation approaches.

And I'd say we progressively evolved through the old worlds of demographic and psychographic, the need scope typologies of the world, to now much more behavioral-based segmentation that helps us really understand and, if you will, I hate to say even "group," but I'll say "understand" people based on common or linked behaviors that are so much more powerful to build a portfolio against or to commercialize a portfolio against.

So in each of those journeys across those three, I think we've uncovered a range of insights underneath in terms of why it was important to make those shifts, whether it be hitting our head against the wall a few times that we weren't seeing the outcomes we needed or just seeing that realization of, ah, it's really that behavior—that is, that past behavior or linked set of behaviors—that will be a bigger trigger of future potential for us than perhaps some of the other triggers that we might have seen in the past.

BREA: That's very helpful. I think I was going to ask you the question about how you develop these insights, what's new and what's old wine in new bottle kind of thing. One of the things you said that's particularly interesting to me is shifting from brand to customer and more of an occasion-based and behavioral-based view of the world, how have you balanced the variety of analytic approaches that you can bring to bear?

Backward looking at data, test in market, even just ethnographic research and observing customers, how did you balance those to evolve your evolution—there's a double use of the word—but basically from the brand over to the customer-based view of the world? That's really powerful.

MICKUNAS: It's definitely been a journey, but I think if I consider what's consistent, regardless of, if you will, method, technology, approach, it always still does start with a strong partnership with the commercial teams, whether it be business leaders or operational managers at whatever level, to understand the problems they're trying to solve. And then, I think, what's key is that then prompts you as a-- we've always sought within our insights and analytics people what we call "people who have an innate intellectual curiosity," right?

Now, once you get someone with intellectual curiosity onto the right problem, he or she can start to look at what are the best solutions today towards going in that direction. And I think the interesting thing with business is rarely are any of us fully satisfied with what we did, right? There's always an opportunity to keep pushing it forward.

So that's, I think, the key thing there is our teams were always really well integrated with business teams to listen, to sense, to guide what new solutions could be, which would then help us see what would be the strength of perhaps our existing or legacy approach, and what might be some gaps to take it to the next level, and then play an active role in seeking out how to go that next level in those areas.

BREA: Right.

MICKUNAS: So that's, I think, really the key within that space. Now, again, a lot of the same principles apply today that they did 20 years ago, but the how, in terms of how you go about solving it, has evolved to be much more in-situation, right? So when you think about research now, big emphasis on behavior.

And so ethnography certainly has its role. But I think what we started to learn is how to really utilize the power of ethnography in the right ways, which is not just blanket observation but more situational context when people are making choices—whether it be in the aisle, at home in the pantry or at the moment of eating. Those are really powerful moments to then build your observation around and get to new insights in more powerful ways.

BREA: Mm-hmm. Oh, go ahead, sorry.

MICKUNAS: And I'll build, also, what's new as well with analytics, right? So 20 years ago, analytics was somewhat constrained to your internal financials, and perhaps your IRI or Nielsen, if you're in CPG.

BREA: Right.

MICKUNAS: And certainly, those are powerful tools of the time, no doubt. But today, there are so many other tools. And so, again, someone who's intellectually curious, seeing what are all the different markers of behavior that could be coming through data and starting to find a way to get access to those in smarter, more efficient ways so that they can identify some root cause and some insights behind that.

BREA: There's so much to keep up with; it really is a blizzard. So one of the questions that naturally emerges from that, for me, is how the teams that you led evolved to adapt to those new possibilities during your tenure. As you had both the opportunity and the obligation to market more toward behaviors, how did the mix of skills change? How did you reorganize and manage those teams as these things happened?

MICKUNAS: Great. I think I'd break it down into two avenues, skills and audiences. And so skills, we mentioned where I started, which was a bit more the classic analytic side, data management. What I found at the time, and for a long time, was people tended to define themselves in one camp or the other, which is I'm quant, or I'm qual.

BREA: Right.

MICKUNAS: And I think what we've certainly seen over the years is that's an unnecessary definition and not a terribly productive definition, if I'm honest, as well, right? So today, we're looking for people who have a much greater blend of those skills in order to balance the qual and the quant and be able to, again, get past the idea that data is a dry, mechanical function.

BREA: Yeah.

MICKUNAS: And it's a living, breathing marker of behavior that can help, when complementing with more of the "why" behind that, can reveal quite a bit. So that skill set has changed. And what we're asking people-- the openness that we're looking for in people to continually learn and adopt new ways of working has been critical in the skill set.

So moving from, I guess, in very simple terms (hadn't thought of it, but), from a bit of a rigid, fixed mindset to much more of an open kind of progress-based mindset on the skills.

BREA: I would imagine—and we'll come back to this definitely when we talk about what you're up to now at Michigan State, but—that's got very significant implications for where you find that talent, right?


BREA: Because folks who were pure quant, pure qual will come from certain programs tuned to produce that. But obviously, those programs tend to be, to a certain degree, followers of the trends in the market. So you have to find focus like that before they exist as being produced by universities. Where did you look as that evolution went on? And how is that shaping what you're doing?

MICKUNAS: Yeah, yeah, just to your point, I mean, in the past, you could go—the shopping list was pretty short in terms of talent, you'd go—to your suppliers. You'd go to competitors, peer companies, and really look for talent that was very similar to what you already had profile-wise.

In recent years, it's very much shifted. I think given the role that media has—how media has embraced data analytics and data-driven marketing and data science—a lot more sourcing from data or digital media companies. A lot of great talent in the digital media space. We've seen that data science organizations or people with data science profiles in their background specifically.

Even now, psychology has changed in how it's taught in universities considerably to be a lot more experiment based and data driven than it was perhaps in the past. And so people with psych backgrounds in that space, who had some practical experience running experiments and doing hypothesis-driven work.

BREA: Yeah.

MICKUNAS: So those have all come through. And then also from strategic consulting spaces as well. Because one of these we'll come onto a little bit is the importance of being able to frame an issue, conduct the proper research path and then how to deliver a narrative and a solution in a way that drives action.

And, again, the historic approach to market research or analytics sometimes really just focused on the middle of that sandwich, which is that—

BREA: Yeah, doing the work.

MICKUNAS: —assembly of an expert in the technique. And that's critical. We never want to send the message that that part is not important. You've got to do great research at the heart and great data analysis at the heart. But you've got to be able to make sure that you're on the right path to do it and then that path is, then, going somewhere in the organization and, ideally, into the market at the end of it.

BREA: Well, what's interesting about that is you've previewed a topic that's interesting for me certainly, which is this notion of it's not just about doing the work, the analytic work in the middle; it's also about how you can communicate and motivate others.

One dimension, when we were originally kicking this around, that occurred to me was the degree to which you look for leadership skills that can help bridge the connection to the marketers. But you've also talked, in our exchanges, about being able to influence more broadly across the organization and that being a big focus for you. What are some of the markers you have for looking for people who do that effectively? What specific development tips and techniques would you suggest, as a senior leader, for helping people who have that potential to fully realize it, both in terms of leading their own fellow marketers but also leading across the organization?

MICKUNAS: Yeah, excellent question. It's been a journey, again. I'll probably overuse that phrase. But I think what we found is the more we can get people beyond just their siloed existence, if you will, in an organization, into teams, because context makes a great difference. You can have all the great analytical skills in the world, but if you're not sure what the business issues are, what are the key pain points in the organization and what are the levers that a team can control, then it's going to be really hard for you to deliver consistently impactful solutions.

So from a development perspective, what we try to focus on is even just one, how teams are structured. And so defining job roles and structure so that teams, team members had a more committed and accountable role for application of insights and analytic outcomes. So tying them to the-- if we've set a goal for, say, a 10% return on ROI of our brand-building investment through the use of market analytics, then that modeler, even, has some skin in the game.

And so now, because that creates a nice kind of virtual cycle, if you will, that individual, she now wants to know a bit more about what's driving the results that are coming into her model and what comes out of, what can come from, what she is generating as outcomes of that. And equally, the team that she is partnering with wants her closer to the action so that they can make those results more-- they can understand those results better, and they can put them into action a little better.

So that's one key part of it. And from a training perspective, it even includes the fundamentals of reacquainting people, if they haven't had it a while since school, to know the P&L and the P&L drivers within a team. What are, if you will, supply chain and logistical realities that can hamper something? What are the realities of the agency ecosystem in terms of leverage to pool?

So it is requiring people to embrace a bit more of a broader mindset of the commercial ecosystem than perhaps they may have entered into the role with. And I think on the positive side, we're not finding that to be overwhelming for people. As a matter of fact as we looked to hire and train and retain, we're looking for people who are energized by that.

BREA: Mm-hmm.

MICKUNAS: Because those folks, then, one, they're more satisfied in their work. And so I think for all of us, a message I always had for our teams and people that I've mentored is, if you care something so much, about it, to become the expert that you've become, then don't be shy about sharing that passion.

BREA: Yeah.

MICKUNAS: And you may not make them as passionate as you are. They're not going to jump the career path and go straight into our studio. But still--

BREA: Yeah, hyperparameter tuning is not for everybody. [LAUGHS]

MICKUNAS: Yeah, well, how do you—if it was important to you, and it is, it's clear when you see people get excited about their work, how do you—help others get excited? And I think, again, that's the virtuous cycle. So when you see that transfer, that creates energy for that individual. And when it doesn't happen, it's deflating. Quite honestly, we've had too many cases in the past where people know they've done great work, but they've not seen it travel.

BREA: Yeah, it just gets buried. Yeah. On that topic, is there a specific story/example that you would tell that you think you're proudest of where not only was the work itself analytically really solid but your team did a very good job of influencing, persuading, communicating across the organization to really get the full value from it? Is there something that comes to mind?

MICKUNAS: Yeah, yeah. One recent example with our team in Europe. We've got a very tight, small group of analytic resources for our European group. But we've had an ongoing challenge with that business in that it's a complex business—multiple categories, multiple countries—and so laying out your investment effectively has many challenges. And what we're finding was our legacy or historic approach to it was not generating the returns nor the impact that we needed.

And so that team, it's one thing to identify that outcome over and over again. But quite honestly, that gets a bit demoralizing for everybody involved, right? Because the business team doesn't want to hear they've had another round of bad performance on unimpacted ROI, and the analytic team is tired about trying to push water uphill and having what felt like bad meetings.

And so that team did a great job of finally connecting on the real pain point, which is a need to drive effective growth in a complex world with shrinking budgets, and started to imagine different outcomes. And so how can—when you're working with an audience, how can—you identify the barriers to change? And so barriers to change internally can be something as simple as the planning process and the typical planning cycle and how decisions are made.

And so that team was able to work upstream with a business leader. And it's always excellent to have what I call a more enlightened, progressive business leader who is willing to change. But when you don't, you have to-- so they started to do some external benchmarking, looking at how other companies, because I'm a firm believer, we're rarely the first company to face a challenge.

BREA: Yeah, right.

MICKUNAS: There's something you'll learn either from another market or another company. So they started to look at how other companies may have faced this problem, what would prevent us from overcoming it and really worked with the team to unlock more of what I call category-, country-neutral investment plans to start to move the money to where it could have the greatest impact on growth and profit for the region.

And then even went the next step of taking it down to how do we run a planning meeting, how to reset the agenda in those meetings, the line item agenda, discussion points that literally move the conversation in a new direction, fact based. And that's critical, because that's helped, one, the analytic team be more effective. But it really-- and I think about how you help a commercial leader be more effective and embrace data-driven marketing, if you will.

You've got to find a major pain point that they can find some control over. You've got to build a solution with them. And then, what we've done in that particular case as well, once you started to put that into place and see some progress, celebrate it. Showcase that leader's, and/or that leader's team, their role in that success. People still respond well to positive recognition. That's not going to change.

BREA: Right, right. Basic behavioral psychology, exactly.

MICKUNAS: But it's—I wouldn't say it's a small thing, but it's—an important nuance in helping our teams understand. Look, I'm not asking them to be selfless, but understanding that it doesn't need to be about them. It needs to be about the organization's success. And that breeds much more success and support and a sustainable mind.

BREA: That's true. That's the stuff, you end up being proudest of, no question. No question.

MICKUNAS: Yeah, so that's been excellent, because that example I've shared with you has created a level of momentum for that team to now start to tackle even bigger issues. And it's the right thing.

BREA: Let me ask you a related question here, which is, how much did you rely on your agencies and vendors and so forth to help you? What were you comfortable getting from them, as opposed to stuff that you considered essential to do in-house to keep that kind of brainpower in the shop?

MICKUNAS: Yeah, that's excellent. I think where we've netted out for in-house, there are a few things that you'll always need: the vision-setting—what are we trying to achieve?—and bringing leadership and teams along. And the goal-setting and alignment. That's our insights leads, our analytic leads have got to be proficient and effective in that, because that's their internal role within that, internally.

But then, as you then build that, I think what we found is there is such a great ecosystem out there of agencies, suppliers, partners who can operationalize solutions for us. And so we became much more comfortable partnering with-- whether they be early-stage companies who are doing some more creative analytics in some especially smaller markets, where some of the classic partners might not be as scalable for us. But really, sharing a lot of our financial data, obviously, a lot of our shipment data and all of the market data to build models and identify things. Same with our agencies as well.

Now, what we found in that is we became comfortable with that when we defined some shared accountability in that, which is not just about signing you up for the delivery of the thing. We're signing you up for delivery of the outcome that the business corps are looking for.

BREA: Right.

MICKUNAS: Which takes a lot more work and isn't always easy. But trying to create some linked objectives in that space has been good. But so what I call the engine room type stuff, we became very comfortable once we, if you will, stabilized some certain platforms and moving those out into the market.

But we also, then, internally kept a large accountability in ownership for implementation. And we found that that's a hard ask if you're putting that on an outside resource and entity. And so, again, our insights and analytics leads are very much accountable for making sense of what comes through the analytics and, in the context of the business, to drive new outcomes.

BREA: How do you think the perception of the analytics organization evolved in the last decade, maybe from something people might have considered it more of a service-specific tasks. Talk about that. And talk about how much you think is true generally vs. what you were able to shape at Kellogg's?

MICKUNAS: Yeah, I think what has, I think, evolved is that more limited group of analysts, if you will, delivering on a reactionary basis for problem of the day or problem of the week.

BREA: Right.

MICKUNAS: And to a more strategically aligned team, that is really at the heart of how we set business objectives and how we identify opportunities. And so it still has a ways to go. I think what's interesting is in CPG, at least more US-based CPG, I think there's a range of, if you will, regard for the art and science of marketing and commercial activation specifically. Well, what I have seen is our team is now at the upfront, playing a bigger role and putting harder numbers against where opportunities exist, whether it be from a market entry perspective or a new product, year-one estimate that is a bit more fully detailed than perhaps the old methods of just getting it out into, say, a basis two study, that sort of thing.

BREA: Right.

MICKUNAS: More data-driven approaches to that. So that's moving in the right direction down to, I think, where we're starting to see is that just more integrated role in day-to-day media planning, even, and optimization of efforts so that there is a lot more central role in that. I think what's happening, though, and I think what the industry is still, I wouldn't say "struggling with" but will have to evolve over the next couple of years, is where the borders blur quite a bit.

BREA: Yeah, that's a good point.

MICKUNAS: Do I want someone who is, if you will, in a job role defined as an analyst that often creates this notion of, well, they just churn data vs. really an operator role with strong analytic skills?

BREA: Yeah.

MICKUNAS: And I think that's where we all want to be. Because of the tools and the skills that we build in commercial-minded job roles, there is a higher analytic component in all of us and what we do.

BREA: Yeah.

MICKUNAS: And in the end, there has to be, quite honestly. Because you can't move at the speed the market needs to move at with relying only on a small subset of analytic thinkers.

BREA: Yeah, no, it's really interesting you mentioned that because we've talked about this evolution of a world where you have analysts and operators toward one, you've got analytic operators. And basically, the technology has evolved to the point where it's possible for more information and more synthesis of that information to be presented to people. But what it does put a premium on is their ability to think analytically, to know what questions they should be asking of those systems, as opposed to just being consumers of whatever the dashboard pumps out that day.

MICKUNAS: Yeah, and that's really still the tricky part in that. I think you always have a role within organizations that you will have a lead analytics group who should be defining and developing the new solutions, but always with a mind towards how do I now transition these into operational space on an ongoing basis in a way that isn't just a simple dashboard that I'm reacting to a green cell vs. a red cell, right?

BREA: Mm-hmm.

MICKUNAS: But you do need that. But at the same time, what we started to look at, even from a competency definition within the job roles of marketers, sales folks, everyone, is that expectation that you know how to interpret outcomes and identify that cause-and-effect path, and that can provide direction to you going forward.

BREA: Yeah.

MICKUNAS: And so it does. And, I think, so when we talk about students coming in down the road, that's just expectation, right?

BREA: Yeah.

MICKUNAS: If I go back to what I opened with when I was qual and there was quant; now, again, there's not analytic nor operator. And if someone wants to define themselves as only one or the other, that's got implications for their career path, I think.

BREA: Yeah, very definitely. What organizations did you consider to be role models for the changes that you were trying to drive? What did you take from them—since nobody gets it all right—what specific things did you take away from these organizations?

MICKUNAS: Yeah, excellent. We looked at a lot. I guess I'll go back to it more specifically. In the last few years, as we've really looked to focus on creating a more commercial analytics organization that addressed broader audiences with broader analytic solutions, we looked at how you do that. Because in any company, you've got finite number of headcount, resources, budgets to do that.

So we looked at what I called the usual suspects—the P&Gs, the Krafts, the Kimberly-Clarks, the others in that space—and learned quite a bit from that. We then also looked into talking to some of our partners at Google and other places. A little tougher, because very different business model.

BREA: Right.

MICKUNAS: But still some themes that came through. And where we netted out in the area of analytics was really striking a balance. There are foundational analytic solutions that multiple parts of the organization can benefit from. And so in that case, creating a little bit of that subject matter expertise center of excellence to drive the progress and operationalize key solutions in the center.

So what we decided on was having a small—or I shouldn't say "small"; it's all relative—an appropriate center-based group to provide foundational analytic support across the teams. And that would be internal. The other internal avenue would be, then, what we called "team deployed," so someone onto a business unit or into a portfolio.

And their role wouldn't necessarily be to generate from zero analytic solutions and modeling and such. It would be really to be, since they're closer to the business-facing teams, to be the situational experts, be context-led in developing and applying solutions. It sounds very simple, but I think a lot of times in the past, our analytic professionals and marketers always felt they needed to create something from ground up. And they felt, perhaps, I wouldn't say "cheating," but they weren't always comfortable using something had been generated by another part of the organization.

BREA: Right.

MICKUNAS: And so we had to create that, if you will, synchronization between those groups so that you would have designed in the center for business needs, and in the business, you would know how to grab that and then tailor it to the business situation we're facing. So we really created a hybrid along those paths. And then, again, externally, we looked at, then, what could we then operationalize through external partners more seamlessly than we had in the past?

BREA: Right, right.

MICKUNAS: So that created our three-legged stool of solutions within analytics that helped people. One, it created clear paths for everyone to understand what path they were in in terms of where their jobs began and ended. Which is, again, a little tricky, because Kellogg's, especially, was a bit more of-- you had freedom to roam. And we weren't looking to be constrain it. We were just looking to empower better partnership, if you will.

BREA: Right.

MICKUNAS: And so a lot of cultural work to do to get that comfortable and landed, which we've made great progress on. But that's really where we netted out. I think where you started was key for us. There wasn't any one model out there that we looked at and said, ah, that's what we've been looking for.

BREA: Right.

MICKUNAS: That's really coming to your solution.

BREA: A little "something borrowed, something blue" kind of situation. Right, exactly.

MICKUNAS: And just stand it up and keep iterating, yeah.

BREA: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. I'm mindful of time. Let me turn to your new role at the Broad School at Michigan State. Tell us about what you're up to and what that program looks like and what you're trying to do.

MICKUNAS: OK, well, so as a Michigan State alum, I've got to say it's the Eli Broad school.

BREA: Forgive me. That's right. Yes. No, no, no, you're exactly right.

MICKUNAS: And so we've got a master's of science in market research there, which is a great program, highly ranked program within generating market research graduates for the industry. And so as I was leaving Kellogg's, I started some dialogue with the team and found a really what I call "progressive" department chair and group professors who have obvious and justified pride in this program but also want to see it keep moving.

And so their key is, yes, you have to have the classic training on fundamental market research skills, for sure. But our goal really is to create graduates who can go into entering their first roles in a company and have impact and really begin to shape the business in a positive way. So what we're looking to do is build off the strength of the curriculum that's there today and then think about how do you, upfront, help these graduates, or prepare these graduates, to identify and frame major pain points and issues and projects within the organization? So they're able to come in with a way to really sink their teeth into problems, as opposed to, if you will, waiting to be asked and then displaying their technical prowess, right?

BREA: Yeah.

MICKUNAS: So the upfront framing piece is key. And that does require some education training, curriculum to get, whether it be case study-based or other ways to approach that. So we're going to build that up.

The other is to continue to just update the tools and techniques that we are teaching in terms of R and Python and Tableau. There's so much need for data-visualization scenario, more predictive analytics, and bringing AI and machine learning into the curriculum in a bigger way. And again, sometimes that is seen as the domain of other parts of the university, right? Or it's been designed as such.

BREA: No, not anymore! [LAUGHS]

MICKUNAS: Oh, it just—yeah, as we talked about, it can't be partitioned away.

BREA: Yeah.

MICKUNAS: Now, you don't have to take these graduates down through three years of that, but you need to make it more than a working knowledge.

BREA: Yeah.

MICKUNAS: You need to find a good balance. So that's we're striving for. So making sure that technical center is still there. And then, in the end, it's how to bring it to life, again, through dramatically portraying the results within a narrative to lead people to action.

BREA: Right.

MICKUNAS: And that's the communication side. But again, in the specific tools of market research, better use of data visualization. It's a great way to capture people's attention, but what I find a lot still in data visualization is, sometimes, a very static approach to data visualization, if that's even a thing, right? But for my experience in business, it's setting up or being able to enable scenario planning really clearly, whether it be just by moving a few key sliders, an updated assumption input on assumptions, but very transparent, clear data visualization that leads to a scenario-based outcomes.

BREA: Right.

MICKUNAS: But those three things—identifying the biggest pain points, and being able to even bring it to life in financial terms. Because what we find is if you can frame something in a financial opportunity upfront, that gets the organizational attention and priority that it deserves. Then do the right work using the latest tools and skills. And then bring it to life in a compelling and engaging way that leads people to action.

So looking at our current course offerings, most of them touch on everything I've just described. But again, to the credit of the university, it's making sure that that's never static and how do we keep evolving that.

BREA: I imagine as part of that, you doubtless have some sort of capstone project or something where people are trying to bring it all together, ideally with some live clients and everything?

MICKUNAS: Absolutely. So that's how the program finishes, which, in that last semester, just exactly had a capstone. And we're always looking for companies to partner with, brands to partner with in building that out. And we've been very fortunate in Michigan to be able to have a number of great companies to partner with and build with.

BREA: Yeah. So now that you're in this role—where you're getting, not only do you have the deep experience in Kellogg's, which itself provides a very global view as you progress up the ranks, but now you're even more so in the role where, by definition, you'll be bumping into people from all sorts of different companies—what kind of advice would you have for CMOs that are trying to adapt their analytics capabilities for what we're up to today?

MICKUNAS: Yeah, it's a big one. Because I think as CMOs, I think, well, the first thing, it's just a shift in mindset, right? Which is, I touched on earlier, is just embracing the notion that data are just markers of human behavior.

BREA: Yeah.

MICKUNAS: It's that dry stuff that showed up in spreadsheets that I don't want spend time with, right? That can happen. But data just are markers of human behavior. And once that mindset takes over, then people get much closer to it.

But what it comes down to, I think, not to make it trite, but three P's: partners, who you spend your time with (I'll come back to); planning, how are plans built and set; and people. And so partners—historically, a lot of CMOs have spent a lot of time with their traditional agencies, which is great. You need those relationships as well. But more and more, spending time with the digital media agencies, with the DMPs, with the Googles and the Salesforces of the world, and with even your own internal IT teams and leaders.

I mean, I think what we're seeing on that side, if you will, and I hate to say "side," but from that discipline in the IT space is they're understanding, or they're realizing, all the same things we're talking about. Just being a specialist in your own domain isn't effective. So finding those IT partners who are really looking to have commercial impact and spending as much time understanding where your internal data comes from and how you can partner to bring your external data in much more effectively.

Because one of the biggest gaps I find for CMOs is just the struggle of data wrangling. Reasonably so. I mean, martech, and we can have a whole separate discussion on the challenges of that.

BREA: Right, yeah, yeah.

MICKUNAS: But the only way the only way to make any improvement in it is to jump into that ecosystem and start to find some partners who are more energized in that. So definitely partners.

BREA: Yeah.

MICKUNAS: The planning, I think, because of the way data provides feedback on a continuous basis, moving away from what has been the practice of country-level annual planning as setting the marketing plan, I don't think anyone's today guilty of "set it and forget it" from a planning perspective. But there's still an opportunity to move away from those big planning cycles to much more frequent cycles of feedback and response.

And so leading that, which is, it takes a lot more energy, for sure, but really gets your teams focused on owning those feedback loops and doing something about it, which then has trickle-down effects of how you buy, how you plan and even who your partners are. So that planning piece has to change.

And then the people. The beauty of people coming into the industry today at the early stage of their careers is they're much more native in everything that you and I are talking about, right? They've got a tremendous advantage over me, at a minimum, in terms of what they know and what they've done, and I think they'd have a tremendous advantage over most CMOs in that space.

So as a CMO, finding those people and giving them fuel in your organization to be pioneers, to work outside the classic agency networks and to find new partners—they will bring new partners into your organization in really meaningful ways. So finding those people, making time for them, you're going to learn as much from them as they learn from you. But still, holding them accountable for outcomes that are evidence based and data driven, in a way.

So each of those things, I think, helps a CMO get beyond their comfort zone and start to move into space that's going to help them see and feel the benefit of data. Because the other thing I'm a big fan of, we all are driven by self-interest at some level. And unless he or she is feeling the benefit of becoming a data-driven CMO, it's not going to happen, OK?

BREA: Yeah.

MICKUNAS: But I think by doing it, you do start to feel it pretty quickly.

BREA: You know, one of the things I wanted to ask you what your advice would be for students. You've offered a lot here in terms of the quant and qual blend, the ability to frame, the ability to present a narrative, basically create some order out of chaos.

But there's another dimension here specifically that that I think your comments here have prompted me to ask about, which is advice for students as they go into some of these new roles in organizations about knowing how to balance I'll call it "lead, follow, get out of the way," right? Meaning, where they can bring some of these new skills, and, as a CMO is trying to empower them, where they can try new stuff, take risks vs. when they should listen to, honor the sort of collective framework for thinking about the world.

Because you can't be successful unless you tune into the wavelength, right? And then, sometimes just knowing when to lean in and get involved with something, and other times to know that it's somebody else. And say more about that and your advice to students.

MICKUNAS: Yeah, but you're definitely on the right track there in terms of being, if you will, culturally aware of where to wade in and where to wade along, right? So I think the biggest thing is any time you enter a new company (and we'll talk this soon), there are certainly plenty of things that are already working, and they're working well, they don't need to be reinvented.

BREA: Right.

MICKUNAS: And so I think it's sensing and just through your onboarding and your early experiences identifying what are the proven practices that are successful for the organization? Those don't need a lot of your new thinking or disruption. It doesn't mean they go fully on autopilot.

BREA: Right.

MICKUNAS: Because I would argue that you're probably going to see a half dozen others that are creating pain points. And so I think organizations have more openness and enthusiasm for someone coming into the organization to address agreed pain points. And the critical thing is "agreed."

Now, that doesn't mean wait until someone raises it for you. Through your fresh eyes entering an organization, you may see that, OK, these three things are working really well. This thing, wow, I'm surprised that that's still a practice in this company, because I learned through my studies that this is handled this way in other companies.

Find a way to say, is that creating a pain point. It may or may not be. Don't assume that it is, but—it may or mayn't, but—investigate it. If it is creating a pain point, whether it be lost sales opportunity, or lost efficiency, whatever it may be, identify whom in the organization is feeling that pain the most and partner with that individual within the remit of your role.

And that's, again, growing up corporate, if you will, again, what I loved about Kellogg's it wasn't a classic stick to your knitting, stay in your lane. But at the same time, there is respect for accountability in any organization.

BREA: Sure.

MICKUNAS: And so sussing that out within whatever dynamic you're within. But it starts with a meaningful pain point in terms of you can help create a solution.

The other thing that's critical I learned (the hard way, probably) is there are plenty of pain points. Some of them are controllable in the near term by the people around you. Others are not. Going after the pain points that aren't controllable in the near term amongst those around you doesn't really help anyone in the near term.

BREA: Right.

MICKUNAS: So take some of the low-hanging fruit of pain points that can be controlled and managed by those around you. And that will help them, again, succeed. And then, I think it creates a showcase for what you can bring to the organization.

BREA: Right. I have to ask a related question inevitably, which is we've talked about advice for CMOs, advice for students, what advice would you have for organizations like ours, like Bain, that are trying to work more effectively with a client, where the analytic challenges evolved in the way that we've discussed here?

MICKUNAS: Yeah, I mean, when I think about companies like Bain and other firms, from my experience, I always looked at three key things that we were seeking in those relationships. One would be capacity, which is essentially, we know what we need to do. We just need more people, right? And so that's the least attractive reason, if I'm honest.

BREA: Body shop, right, yeah.

MICKUNAS: Next is capability. We know we have a problem, but we also know we probably don't have the skills or experience to address it as quickly or as effectively as we'd like to. So people is a key one. But the third one is really critical from an outside perspective of expertise, which is clarity.

And I think that's the thing that, through my career, I've valued the most from some external partners and firms that connected to the capability and their capacities is that clarity. Being able to come in and help a company see what they really have in front of them, both from an issue and an opportunity perspective. And in the specific space of analytics, there have been many cases where there are some really good analytics happening down, in and across the organization, but they're not raising to the level we've discussed here or they're just stopping short somewhere. And they may be stopping short and/or somewhat incomplete. So being able, from a point of clarity, being able to highlight, OK, if you added this, filled this gap or added this aspect to what you're doing here, you can turn that to the next level and unlock great potential.

BREA: Mm-hmm.

MICKUNAS: And so being that objective third party who can come into the situation, understand the context, understand what kind of strengths and assets are there, what gaps are there, and then being able to partner on building whatever new solutions may need to be put in place is key. But in the end, also, it does, similar to this notion of the students, the narrative of creating a solution and creating the way forward, companies are often, even once they have, if you will, the solution, the inertia to change is tough.

BREA: Yeah.

MICKUNAS: And so how do we help, how can you help, identify how other companies, through case studies or others, ran up against that same wall until they decided to knock that wall down?

BREA: Right.

MICKUNAS: And again, a lot of my learning through behavioral science over the years is the pain of change is not nearly as strong as we might imagine. We tend to amplify it in our minds prior.

BREA: Yeah.

MICKUNAS: And so once you can build that confidence that it has been done elsewhere, it can be done here, and people start to get through it, yeah, change is uncomfortable. But even if it's something, changing out, something as simple as, the annual country-level planning routines, people hang on to those artifacts really strongly.

BREA: Right.

MICKUNAS: How do you put it, again, through clarity of, hey, we, empathy-- we see where you're at; we see why that works. But you also have raised for us what the shortfalls of that are. Let's talk about some organizations who've made progress beyond that. Let's see how we could bring not a cookie cutter but the tailored solution to help you get there.

BREA: Right.

MICKUNAS: So the clarity piece, built off all the other aspects, I think, is one of the best things that I've always found from our partnerships.

BREA: That's very helpful. Your go-to sources, how do you keep up with the field? What do you follow? What should we be reading that we likely aren't that you've tracked?

MICKUNAS: Yeah, it's-- I always thought i should be doing more, if I'm honest.

BREA: You've got to share your syllabus at the Broad School. We've got to see what it is you're going to teach, right?

MICKUNAS: Yeah, we'll definitely get that out. But I try to find a balance of what I call the everyday, the quick bites, that just give me some energy and inspiration, things that you can find through LinkedIn and through Twitter.

BREA: Yep.

MICKUNAS: On LinkedIn, I think, I'm a big fan of the behavior economics group. There's a lot that's come through there: great papers, great examples, great case studies.

Through my work at Kellogg's, I got involved with the Yale Center for Customer Insights and serve on their advisory board. So both things directly from Professor Ravi Dhar at Yale and then things from the advisory board and, again, they've got some great LinkedIn materials. Again, just monitoring. Those are two that pop out that just keep me thinking.

Reading, again, my hope, if you will, from Covid was that I'd have a lot more time to just dig in.

BREA: Fat chance! Yeah. [LAUGHS]

MICKUNAS: And again, I think we can all relate to that. But I started reading Esther Duflo. She was a 2019 Nobel Prize winner in Economics for her work on using experiments to solve poverty. Not directly related to CPG in any way, but what has been really inspiring from Professor Duflo's work is just the importance of moving it from theory and hypothesis to action—and scaling, creating many small-scale experiments and then what I call pruning and promoting appropriately.

BREA: Right.

MICKUNAS: The ones that work keep going. But that's been—and so I've just continued to follow up on threads from her work in that space to keep learning.

BREA: Very cool.


BREA: Yeah.

MICKUNAS: And then just former colleagues who are in the industry, and whether it be folks at Middlegame or there's an interesting little company called Truthset now that's doing a lot of work.

BREA: I know them, yeah.

MICKUNAS: Yeah, so Aaron Fetters and the group at Truthset are doing some great—because it starts with good data, right? If you think you're going out and delivering messaging to moms, and it turns out only 30% of those people really were moms, that's not good data.

BREA: Their findings about the quality of the house lists most company has been pretty staggering for me. I mean, this notion that we're down to a third or a quarter of the quality that we think we have. And that's amazing.

MICKUNAS: Yeah, yeah. So just—and I think I will say one of the benefits of now stepping away from Kellogg's and having this time is just really building some of those relationships and keeping that network alive. Because it does just give me energy and start me thinking on things. But there's a host of others, and apologies for not having a more comprehensive list.

BREA: Not at all. That's a great list. So the waves of guilt are already washing over me for all the things that I have catch up and read on. So, yeah.

MICKUNAS: Well, the other thing I'll mention really quick, just even in the Twitter space, because even you've got a few minutes, Cole Knaflic is a lady who does some great stuff in data visualization. She has developed some courseware, some training courses that we sent some of our team to.

BREA: That's very interesting.

MICKUNAS: And I also just, there's so many, again, I hate to say "younger people," that doesn't make me sound young.

BREA: Yeah. Exactly.

MICKUNAS: Early career professionals who are doing some amazing stuff.

BREA: Hatchlings. [LAUGHS]

MICKUNAS: Yeah. Again, they just come at it from a native perspective that's really good.

BREA: Last question, and it's hopefully a fun one. What is your favorite campaign ever, both—doesn't have to be a Kellogg's one, but both—in terms of effectiveness but also the creativity of it that really stands out for you as something that you look to as an inspiration?

MICKUNAS: Oh, yeah, that's great. Because I mean, I have loved, throughout my career, as I've worked a lot with our brands, if you will, the creative side of it, which is excellent. And both-- so again, coming from Kellogg's background, so much to like over the years. Granted, we've got great, strong brands that have grown through the role of characters like Tony the Tiger, Snap, Crackle, Pop, Mr. P on the Pringles can, all those. But I'll not pick a favorite amongst them.

BREA: Of course not. [LAUGHS]

MICKUNAS: Because then, I'm just going to make a bunch of colleagues mad.

BREA: Going to make a lot of enemies, exactly.

MICKUNAS: Externally, I'll go first on the inspirational side, over the years, what I've really, in the UK, a retailer by name of John Lewis.

BREA: Yeah.

MICKUNAS: And you've likely seen John Lewis's Christmas work. And it became almost an annual tradition of the John Lewis advert coming out, which was well respected in the industry. Directors really want to have those spots. But even from a consumer perspective, working with our UK team, people look forward to those.

Because they just captured the season. They captured the sentiment. They weren't hard sell by any stretch. They weren't trying to just push boxes through. But they had a really positive impact on John Lewis's equity and their role in the industry to help them stand out among a very busy and crowded time among retailers.

So I will—you go back and look at their stuff on YouTube, and it's just great advertising, inspiration-wise.

BREA: Yeah.

MICKUNAS: So that's—now, on the effectiveness side, I don't have the data, so I'll have to go with a more personal effectiveness, is growing up in food, I love great food advertising. And I'm a huge believer, quantitatively, in the power of beautiful food photography.

BREA: Yeah.

MICKUNAS: And over the last few years, I don't know if it's since Todd Penagor has gone as CEO, or others, but Wendy's is doing, their food photography is wonderful.

BREA: Interesting.

MICKUNAS: It could be 11:15 PM, I can be just about shutting down, and here comes an ad for the Baconator, and I've got to the car and go to Wendy's drive-through. But seriously, their appreciation for the food, whether, even their most recent stuff, Frosty-ccino, they make it look delicious. Which seems like, well, of course.

BREA: Yeah.

MICKUNAS: But if you look at the range of fast food advertising, in particular, I think they're doing it better than most, and consistently better than most. And then, of course, their voice in social is tremendous.

BREA: Yeah.

MICKUNAS: They know what to hit on, when to hit on, how to hit on things within the social space. And so I've been really impressed. Not to knock it, but in a very—I don't want to say "mundane," very—straightforward category, I think they're on their game.

BREA: Sure, no, it's a great realization.

MICKUNAS: Taking in my personal experience, because now it's become a running joke in the household that now, shoot, I saw a Wendy's commercial. I have to go.

BREA: Right, the Baconator. [LAUGHS] They know how to exploit your weakness. Well, Mike, thank you so much for spending time with us. This has been really interesting and so much to think about here. So much now I've got to go run out and see if I can read up on and everything, places to check out. But I think some really wonderful advice for us as we as we think about going forward here.

And also, let me say, we're very honored to have you join us as a Bain adviser and very eager to have the chance to work with you at some point in the near future, any number of different things. So thank you.

MICKUNAS: Yeah, likewise. I'm really thrilled to join the Bain Advisory Network and be able to share some of my perspective and get engaged at the right time on the right kind of initiatives. It's going to be a lot of fun.

BREA: Fantastic. I look forward to another conversation very soon.

MICKUNAS: Yeah, thank you for your time. Appreciate it.


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