Coca-Cola and Subway’s former CMO on ‘marketing’s dirty little secret’

From the danger of being a dysfunctional client and why FMCG firms should stop resisting change to the power of brand equity, Joe Tripodi shares all after 40 years in marketing.


Not many people know as much about marketing as Joe Tripodi. The six-time CMO has been the chief marketer for Coca-Cola, Bank of America, and most recently Subway, to name just a few.

The friendly but forthright 63-year-old can wax lyrical about ‘total touchpoint marketing’ and the limits of advertising. Having been in the industry over 40 years Tripodi retired from Subway in January but the all-American marketer still has lots to say about the industry.

For example, many big brands from Procter & Gamble to Unilever are thinking more critically about their relationships with agencies and bringing activity in-house but Tripodi says agencies aren’t necessarily to blame.

He explains: “The dirty little secret in marketing is frequently the client is dysfunctional. The agency gets blamed and bears the brunt of it but the client in many instances – and this is certainly true in my career – can be highly dysfunctional and they don’t know what they want.”

A key example, which Tripodi thinks contributes to the short tenure of CMOs, is when a new one comes into a business and immediately changes the ad agency. That gives colleagues an unrealistic view of what advertising can do for the business, he says.

“Of course, when the CMO changes the agency and you get a new campaign and the business does not turn around dramatically, then the CMO gets fired because they set up the expectation that the world was going to change because of new advertising.”

He adds: “My biggest pet peeve is that people, even some at the most senior levels in some of the biggest companies, think an ad campaign is going to solve broader business issues.”

My biggest pet peeve is that people, even some at the most senior levels in some of the biggest companies, think an ad campaign is going to solve broader business issues.

Joe Tripodi

Whether talking about the obstacles facing the FMCG sector or changes in marketing, Tripodi can reel off an exhaustive to-do list of issues to tackle, from the increase in operational costs and the shifts in the digital ecosystem to activist investors focused on short-term growth and direct-to-consumer competitors.

His advice? “FMCG people need to prove they have the skills, capability and vision to evolve what they have been doing for 50, 60 years. And if you’re not changing to address those forces of disruption and [adapt] then you will become a dinosaur.

“These big companies are bureaucracies, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative way. The hardest thing to change is the culture at the major FMCG companies as there will always be resistance to change from people. But tell them if you don’t like change you’ll like irrelevancy and unemployment even less.”

Tripodi often gives a short, deep chuckle after a potentially controversial comment or self deprecating joke, but the point that produces the greatest laugh is his statement of the biggest lesson of his career: “Don’t believe your own bullshit.”

“Once you start believing your own press clippings and BS then that’s the beginning of the end,” he says.


As someone who has worked in marketing for the past four decades, he says there are several attributes CMOs must possess in order to excel, starting with “intellectual curiosity and conviction in what you believe”.

“You also need to be ruthlessly focused on the customer and not the bureaucracy of your company and you need to be the voice of the customer at the table for the senior leadership,” he says.

“I know it is all going towards data and analytics but I think the CMO has to represent and understand the heartbeat of the brand. Yes you have to have the analytics and the targeting and the research and all those other things, but a successful CMO will be the customer advocate in the management team and also be a good teacher.”

Tripodi is sceptical about the rise of titles like chief growth officer replacing the CMO, though. In 2017, his former employer Coca-Cola appointed a chief growth officer, for example, which the brand’s global vice-president of creative, Rodolfo Echeverri says has “broadened” the company’s marketing approach.

Tripodi is less sure: “I am a little sceptical of thinking that a title change is going to dramatically change the trajectory of businesses that are undergoing massive structural changes and forces that are being imposed on them,“ he says.

However, he is a fan of CEO James Quincey and an ”advocate for making a total beverage company”, especially as he knows all too well how difficult it can be to keep the Coca-Cola brand relevant.

He explains: “It’s very easy for Apple to stand up every quarter and show their new product line but it’s a little different at Coke, particularly for the main product. Yes, you can have line extensions and variants of your core brand but you have to innovate in the packaging area, the delivery system area and the consumer engagement area for a brand.”

READ MORE: Coca-Cola – we must keep creating brands or online retailers will win

Tripodi urges that “marketing is sometimes a slow build” and to remember to get key stakeholders on board for “both short-term and long-term objectives”.

“Some of what you do is going to be immediate; sometimes you’re going to run a price promotion and it is going to have an immediate impact in your market. Then there are going to be things in your longer term that are equity-focused and you need to get people to believe that brand equity is a critical component,” he says.

“Because at the end of the day if all the Subway stores burn down you still have the Subway brand and you can rebuild them.”

Looking back on a four-decade career

Tripodi began his career at IBM in 1977 before joining Mobil Oil where he got “broad experience of different types of business”.

In 1989, he joined Mastecard and rose to become the executive vice-president of global marketing, products and services in the mid-1990s, before moving to wine and spirits company Seagram.

He was made redundant after the Seagram business was acquired by Diageo and Pernod Ricard but quickly became CMO at the Bank of New York and subsequently CMO at insurance firm Allstate. In 2007, he began an eight-year stint at Coca-Cola where he was chief marketing and commercial officer before finally moving to Subway to take on the CMO role.

When asked to consider how marketing as changed throughout his career his response is “oh god”.

“I can remember when I started with Mastercard direct marketing was just through the mail. You used to send a letter to people and do a million things to change the letter – you’d change the title of the letter or the envelope – so it was really A/B testing. Now that can be done online so much faster and you can get responses much quicker.

“All the touchpoints need to be addressed in order to be a true marketer now. Say, 20 or 30 years ago, it was much more about showing the new ad and everybody laughs and likes the ad. It was spray and pray before and now it’s much more one-to-one precision based marketing.”

Having worked across many great brands, Tripodi finds it hard to single out just one career highlight, but he is proud of Coca-Cola’s activity at the Fifa World Cup in South Africa and the “spectacular London Olympics in 2012 which really energised the brand”.

And despite his view of advertising’s limitations, his greatest personal moment was Coca-Cola being named creative marketer of the year at Cannes Lions in 2013. “I said to my wife ‘well, it’s never going to get any better than this’,” he recalls.

Any regrets? Just one. “I made a career mistake: after Seagram was sold and all the senior management was released I took a job as the CMO of the Bank of New York and it probably wasn’t the right culture fit for me. I realised I convinced myself that a good job was a great job, when really I should have dug a little deeper and realised that was probably not the right place for me

“But I wanted to get back in the game quickly because a lot of times you measure your self-worth by your title. So I encourage people now to take the time to [ensure they] take the right opportunity for them.”

READ MORE: AB InBev’s UK marketing boss – Don’t underestimate the importance of culture when taking on a new job

Building an ‘all-star team

Despite being a titan of the industry Joe Tripodi is fundamentally a team player. “You don’t do anything by yourself, it’s about a team of people. This isn’t just about Mr Joe,” he says.

While he was central to the launch of Coca-Cola’s popular ‘Share A Coke’ campaign, which saw people’s names printed across Coke bottles, and Mastercard’s ‘Priceless’ activity, he remains humble, saying he is most proud of building an “all-star team” at Coke and watching them rise to success.

“I have been very very fortunate and I owe it to the people who worked with me. They had great talent and made me look a lot better than I am. So I am humbled by the relationships that I have built and hopefully have been a positive influence in their careers as well,” he says.

He adds that he is a champion of diversity of thought – “amazingly not all great ideas start in corporate headquarters” – and recalls a meeting with WPP’s former head Sir Martin Sorrell over a decade ago in New York: “I said to him, listen, thousands of people in towers on Madison Avenue is not the future. What we really need is the best creative ideas that come from WPP, regardless of where they are in the world. Whether that’s Mumbai, Shanghai, Rio or Madison Avenue.”

Tripodi says technology has since created a platform to allow more diverse voices to be heard. “Most companies start local, then they go multinational, then global, so you used to think global was the top of the food chain but now with technology you can create the network model and get ideas from all over the world.”

You also need to be ruthlessly focused on the customer and not the bureaucracy of your company.

Joe Tripodi

Despite his enthusiasm about harnessing technology for skills-sharing, he is wary of its limitations. “As this world evolves, the marketer needs more content. Curating that content, sourcing that content and managing that content and distributing that over multiple different devices all represent significant challenges.

“There’s a lot of content out there and some of it is pretty bad. Managing it all through this holistic system of consumer engagement will be one of the biggest challenges for marketers going forward.”

Another aspect of marketing he laments is the obsession with “the new shiny toys”. He says: “You need to focus on the basics, do the basic better. Innovation is not one thing, it is doing 100 little things better and that will have a much greater impact on your business than if you are constantly chasing the next new sexy thing, which is like looking for the Lost Ark,” he says.

He applies the same advice to career progression: “I noticed a tendency in people to want to move so quickly that they neglect what they’re doing in their current role and that’s not a good ending. Don’t worry about your next job before you’ve spent barely any time in your current job.”

However, unsurprisingly for someone whose career spans five sectors, he says “don’t pigeon-hole yourself” early on.

“Don’t go deep right away in one component of marketing. Get exposed to as many different parts of marketing and consumer engagement as you can. I would also encourage you strongly to go out of your home country and get an assignment abroad if you can. I had four international assignments at a fairly young age.”

READ MORE: The benefits of being an outsider – why brands are hiring marketers with no sector experience

But ultimately he urges marketers to chase their passions and dreams. “Find something that, after you get this overview of marketing, is the most fascinating and then go deep.”

It’s this philosophy that led Tripodi to marketing in the first place. “I said I would rather try to be a great CMO than a mediocre general manager, so I just went deep in one area and I have no regrets.”