The abrupt departure of the senior marketing team from any major brand is bound to raise a few eyebrows but at Birds Eye Iglo it has added significance because its chief executive is one of the industry’s most high-profile figures. The frozen food company is run by marketing supremo Martin Glenn who, in his words, turned Walkers crisps from a “strong regional brand” into “one of the best loved in the country”.
Glenn’s appointment last year as chief executive of Birds Eye, which was bought out of Unilever by private equity company Permira, was welcomed at the time by observers. But the departure of marketing director Andy Beattie and marketing manager of communications Caroline Drummond (MW last week) less than a year later has raised questions about whether Glenn is controlling the marketing process too tightly and freezing out the rest of his team.
Some industry observers believe that cracks started to appear when the brand called a review of its £15m media planning and buying business in May. The account was moved from Unilever incumbent MindShare to Carat, but sources suggest that Beattie and Drummond were sidelined during the pitch, as it was driven by procurement.
This was swiftly followed by a decision to review the advertising account, held by Bartle Bogle Hegarty. Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO was the only agency invited to pitch against BBH. AMV is the incumbent agency for Walkers Snacks.
While some in the advertising industry claim it was inevitable that AMV would win the business, Glenn says the agency was approached because it was the incumbent agency in Belgium. He adds: “I am not denying that I had a close relationship [with AMV] and people can have an opinion but I won’t lose any sleep over it. I was happy to give BBH time and the ads were OK. The Truth campaign [created by BBH] did some good things but it wasn’t driving sales.”
But some see the advertising review as part of a wider problem. An anonymous caller to Marketing Week claims Beattie was “sidelined” and that Glenn is “like a brand manager” who “runs everything down to the smallest detail”. The caller adds that Birds Eye is “breaking up” with more departures coming from its human resources, sales and PR teams.
Glenn dismisses the suggestion that he is a “frustrated marketer” and he is generally supported by industry observers. One source says: “I don’t think he has a problem with letting go but the people around him will need to earn his trust. He has a bigger job now, running the UK, Germany and all the other markets. I think he has bigger ambitions.”
According to Birds Eye general manager Anne Murphy, the churn in the marketing team – and indeed across the business – is due to the huge period of transition it is going through. “It is a structural, strategic and cultural change in line with our ambitions,” she says. “Over the course of the past year – as in any restructure – we have lost people. Some are regretted losses, others are not so suited to what we want to be.”
Glenn and Murphy, who joined from Procter & Gamble but are also ex-Pepsico, have dismantled the Unilever marketing structure they inherited which separated marketing strategy from activation with a separate media communications team that sat in the department. Murphy says they want to give the current team “end-to-end responsibility” so they have merged the teams. The restructure led to the departure of Drummond, whose role was axed. The marketing director role will be filled by former Heinz commercial chief Ben Pearman.
Glenn adds: “The company has changed so the objectives have changed. We reduced the size of the marketing role and it led to a diminution of power. Some didn’t like that.”
The changes are part of Glenn’s strategy to cut costs and get back to basics, adds the industry source. “The changes in marketing had been planned for some time. His is a much more dynamic and faster route than the Unilever way. It is more like Pepsico, which is small, quick and dirty, and the brand managers are responsible for everything.”
The new UK Birds Eye team has also been building an infrastructure as it extracts the business from Unilever. Glenn says it is “not a unique experience” but that operationally it is a big job because Birds Eye had to be separated from the ice cream business, which was not sold. It then had to create services such as IT and purchasing, and is finally moving to its own offices this week.
Murphy says that one of the main challenges has been having a national brand with a start-up mentality and no infrastructure. Now the divorce is nearing completion, the new company can focus on developing the category and its brand share.
After five years of decline, the frozen food category is growing again with value sales up by 3% for the 52 weeks to September 8 (IRI Infoscan). Birds Eye’s value share has increased by 3.4% over the past four weeks and it says it has had ten months of year-on-year growth since it was sold.
Unilever and the previous team at Birds Eye had already done a lot of work to reposition both frozen food and the brand. It reminded people that freezing is a natural way of preserving food and that many chilled products contained preservatives to extend shelf life.
This strategy has broadly been continued by the new owners but it has also revamped its fish fingers, which are now made from pollock rather than cod as part of a drive to address sustainability. It is also running its largest promotion to date across 45 products, offering consumers the chance to be mortgage free.
Murphy says that it has a “very robust three-year plan” to deliver sustainable top-line growth and that now it has established some stability it can focus on that strategy.
Some industry figures believe that Glenn has been “ruthless” in his approach at Birds Eye and has treated some people “shabbily”, but others say that he has one chance to make Birds Eye work and he is doing what is necessary. His place in the annals of marketing history may be confirmed but his place as a chief executive who can turn around a brand in a declining market has yet to be secured.