From marketing director to MD: Weetabix’s Sally Abbott on ‘failing forward’ and driving growth

From her new position as managing director of Weetabix, former marketer Sally Abbott plans to make marketing a fundamental driver of business growth.

sally abbott, weetabix

“We’re pretty straight talking as an organisation,” says Sally Abbott, reflecting on the character of the Weetabix UK and Ireland business, five days into her role as managing director.

“We’re empowered to make decisions and we’ve got a pretty flat structure, so you genuinely get the opportunity to make things happen quickly and that’s not always the case when you’ve got those global organisations with chains of command to work your way through.”

Abbott made the move to managing director in July, nine years since joining Weetabix as marketing director following a 14-year career at Kraft Foods. Her promotion marked the latest development in a period of change for the British cereal giant.

This change started in April with the £1.4bn acquisition of Weetabix by Post Holdings, the North American leader in cereal, protein shakes and granola. The new parent company has already committed to invest £10m in TV advertising to help keep Weetabix top of mind with consumers in this its 85th anniversary year.

Post-acquisition everything is very much business as usual at Weetabix, Abbott insists. “Post Holdings have bought us because of how we operate and the results we deliver, so they have no intention of changing that.

READ MORE: Weetabix on why TV is ‘very hard to beat’ for ROI

“We will carry on being a great place to work and driving for category growth in the way we’ve been driving. We’re definitely being invited to operate independently. We’re not being integrated into the Post Holdings consumer brands business in the US,” she adds.

Finalising the Post Holdings deal is one of the highlights of Abbott’s career, who describes the acquisition as a great reflection of the strength of the Weetabix business and how attractive its brands are to investors.

My job is to continue to make Weetabix a great place to work, because it’s the people who work here who give us that competitive advantage.

Sally Abbott, Weetabix

Over the past year Weetabix has grown its UK market share for cereals and drinks from 15.3% to 16.4%. The business has also dominated product launches within the cereals category during the past two years. The introduction of the Weetabix Protein and Protein Crunch cereals alone contributed £7.5m to the business in the year to May 2017.

Recognising the biggest current challenge to the cereal category as being the changing nature of breakfast, Abbott believes Weetabix’s focus on pace and pragmatism has empowered the team to react swiftly when a new idea emerges that they want to explore.

“Our Weetabix On The Go drinks launch back in 2014 is a great example. It took us 11 months from talking about it at one of our senior leader meetings to actually producing a product and selling it,” she explains.

“We develop a really clear strategy. We’ve built a strong innovation process and then we build the right team around it, so that we can make our innovation happen quicker, faster and better.”

Making the transition

Weetabix’s culture of “end-to-end marketing”, which offers marketers exposure to every aspect of the business, has prepared Abbott for her move into management.

“Having that perspective across the business gives me a head start in my role. We’re a branded organisation and having a belief in the power of brands is vital to our financial success,” she explains.

“You’d expect a marketer to say that and understand that, but I think Weetabix as a whole gets that. It genuinely gets the power of brands and puts the end consumer right at the heart of our business.”

Reflecting on her predecessors’ commitment to investing in brand strength, Abbott sees it as her responsibility as managing director to follow in their footsteps and create the right environment for success. This starts with building a talented leadership team who offer genuine “diversity of thought”.

“I’ve got people from Coca-Cola, KPMG, Reckitt Benckiser and Whitbread, so we’ve got a really strong leadership team that help drive the vision for the company and make sure, that with great people, we can deliver the results our owners are looking for.”

The concept of “servant leadership” is important to Abbott, who believes leaders should serve their team by helping them be the very best they can be.

It’s ok to make mistakes. The challenge is to learn from them, to make sure that you move on with the humility of knowing where we went wrong.

Sally Abbott, Weetabix

This is a big reason why Weetabix, and particularly the marketing team, looks to reward talent with promotion from within. Abbott cites the appointment of former global head of category Francesca Davies, who replaces her as marketing director, and Claire Canty, who in June swapped a cross-functional sales role for head of innovation with responsibility for new product development.

READ MORE: Marketing Week rising star Claire Canty promoted to head of innovation at Weetabix

“I have a fundamental belief that the best business results will be delivered by the best people, and so we’ve got to work really hard to take away any barriers that might prevent anyone from being at their best,” says Abbott.

“My job [as MD] is to continue to make Weetabix a great place to work, because it’s the people who work here who give us that competitive advantage.”

Learning to fail forward

Thinking both as a leader and role model Abbott encourages her teams to think big and not be afraid to fail.

“I’m fallible. I’ve made mistakes along the way. At Weetabix we describe it as failing forward. It’s OK to make mistakes. The challenge is to learn from them, to make sure that you move on with the humility of knowing where we went wrong,” Abbott explains.

“The ability to work with pace and to have ambition has to be tempered with taking cautious business risks. It’s about being courageous enough to put your hand up and say when you got it wrong.”

Doing the right thing even when no-one is watching and striving for sustainable growth are key lessons Abbott has brought with her to the boardroom, along with an unshakable faith in the value of marketing.

She wholeheartedly disagrees with anyone that suggests marketing is “just the colouring in department”, arguing instead that marketing should be a fundamental part of any business.

“Marketing’s brief is to drive revenue and my experience of marketing both here at Weetabix, and in my previous roles, is that it’s anything but fluff,” Abbott insists.

“Marketers are commercial business people and their role is to find opportunities that drive our brands and our categories into growth.”