The 10 Essential Advertising People of the Year: No. 2 Ann Simonds

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The General Mills CMO started a domino effect, and a debate, when she ordered her creative agencies to diversify.

For better or worse, 2016 was a landmark year in advertising. To mark its conclusion, Campaign US is highlighting 10 people we believe are essential to understanding how it all went down. We will be counting down our choices starting on Dec. 9, with our No. 1 most essential person revealed on Dec. 22. Click here to see the list as it is revealed.

It was an up and down year for Ann Simonds, chief marketing officer for General Mills. She oversaw one of the year’s most-watched creative reviews and launched the food giant’s first all-digital marketing campaign. She also found herself on the wrong side of declining sales and a shifting marketplace; at the end of the year, Simonds will leave GM as it undergoes a global restructuring and lays off 600 employees.

In the end, Simonds—a 21-year veteran of GM—was only in her CMO role for two years, and there are arguments to be made for and against the quality of her performance. But there’s no debating the impact her decision to impose diversity quotas on agencies pitching her company’s business had on 2016—and may have for years to come.

If agencies wanted the food-maker’s business, Simonds revealed in August, their creative departments must be staffed with at least 50 percent women and 20 percent people of color. It was all part of Simonds’ plan to represent the consumers the brand serves. It was also the first time a major client took up the mantle of agency diversity, a long-simmering issue that had failed to ignite much furor beyond the agencies themselves.

Had GM remained the only advertiser to make the demand, Simonds’ decision might not seem as significant. But within weeks of her announcement, HP CMO Antonio Lucio made a similar ask of his five advertising and public relations firms: Submit plans within 30 days showing how you will increase the number of women and minorities in top creative spots, or risk losing HP’s business. Verizon became the third domino to fall, with CMO Diego Scotti describing diversity as "an explicit business objective" and requiring its 11 agencies to follow suit.

The move elicited plenty of accolades, but also raised some difficult questions. "What if half the team are women who are all white and went to Oxford or Cambridge or Ivy League schools? Is that better than having 30-40 percent women, but the whole base coming from a real mix of places?" OgilvyOne CEO Jo Coombs said to Digiday. In contrast, Susan Gianinno, chairman, Publicis Worldwide North America, called Simonds’ mandate "an important signal" that "will force behavior change that simply has not happened." It’s a debate that’s likely to continue in 2017 and beyond.

In a year when diversity became top of mind for agencies, thanks to the public ouster of several retrograde agency leaders, Simonds did more than tweet her support. She put her company’s very significant advertising budget on the line. And as anyone in a service business will tell you, nothing grabs your attention quite like a client who says, "It’s time to get this done." 

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