Larry Light: An interview by Bob Morris


Larry Light is the Chief Executive Officer of Arcature LLC, consultants in brand management. Light was a senior executive and Board member at BBDO and President of the international division of Ted Bates. He was Global CMO of McDonald’s from 2002 to 2005. More recently, Light was the interim Global Chief Brands Officer of IHG. Light’s views on marketing issues are regularly quoted in the media, including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Financial Times, CNBC, Advertising Age, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Forbes, and Fortune. He has authored marketing articles in Advertising Age and The Journal of Brand Strategy.

He and Joan Kiddon are the co-authors of New Brand Leadership: Managing at the Intersection of Globalization, Localization and Personalization, published by Pearson FT Press (June 2015).

Here is an erxcerpt frfom my interview of Larry.

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Who has had greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Light: Arthur Cullman, marketing professor at Ohio State University. He convinced me to try the Advertising Agency world. I interviewed at agencies in Chicago and New York City. I decided to go BBDO, an advertising agency in NYC. I knew nothing about the advertising business. They hired me for the summer and then I returned to school. BBDO funded the completion of my PhD dissertation. I joined BBDO full-time to start a marketing science function and was later promoted to client service in the Market Research department. That led to becoming the head of the market research department. I then became EVP responsible for marketing and media and new business. I joined the Board of Directors. If it were not for Art Cullman, who knows what path my career would have taken?

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow?

Light: The turning point was definitely joining BBDO. I learned to love life in the marketing world. I am still active in the marketing space as a consultant on brand management. I still love it.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Light: My undergraduate degree was in behavioral psychology. This is certainly a useful education relevant to understanding customer behavior. This was followed by a graduate degree in human factors. This led to an emphasis on quantitative methods helping to understand and predict human behavior. This background is even more relevant today as marketing analytics increase in importance every day.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

Light: Nothing in business is either/or. My coauthor Joan Kiddon and I are very clear in our books that strategies not only provide a plan for what to do but also what not to do. Of course, you must stop doing what is not worth doing. This is clearly a difficult path for many in leadership to follow. You see it all the time. Leaders have no trouble adding to the list of “must-do now” but find it very difficult to have a list of “stop-doing now.”

Morris: From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

Light: There is a statistical approach called the Kano model that basically says those things that are new today will be the generics of tomorrow, the must-haves of the category, the opening stakes to play in the category. Some dangerous ideas are just that, dangerous. The key is relevance. If it is a relevant idea, it will move from being differentiating to generic, like free Wi-Fi in hotels, which moved from “we are unique” to “we have it have it too.”

Morris: From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Light: Thomas Edison had a way with words. Execution is everything. Vision without execution is intellectual entertainment. Customers only know what they experience. This is business reality. Vision without action is illusionary. Business is all about executional excellence to produce enduring profitable growth. You cannot just think your way to success.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Light: There are always leaders and managers who believe that being busy is synonymous with making progress. In business and brand, it is all about doing the right things in the right way with the right people for the right goals. If a car salesperson is rewarded for sales at any cost, then that person will sell a lot of cars regardless of whether the sales pitch damages the brand. Being industrious has its pluses and minuses: we need people to get things done. We do not need people who are industrious doing stupid, brand-demeaning things. We do not need people to get the wrong things done in the wrong way.

Morris: In one of Tom Davenport’s recent books, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Light: There is a lot being written today about leadership. Not everyone agrees on what a good leader needs to do or not do upon taking control. However, one thing on which most agree is humility and lack of hubris. Group-think may have its proponents, but at the end of the day, it is the leader who makes the call. Collaborative decision-making is what our book, New Brand Leadership, is all about. Collaboration is essential to business effectiveness. Organizational silos inhibit business effectiveness. But, someone needs to be accountable. Leaders must lead.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Light: Our Collaborative 3-Box Model highlights two important things. Effective, leadership today is not about command-and-control. In a collaborative culture, the role of leadership is built on five pillars: inspiration, influence, support, education, and evaluation. Second, when it comes to culture change, it is the responsibility of the leadership to be open and forthcoming and tell people why the change is important, what they must do differently and what this all means to each one of them.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Light: First, there is a collision of three conflicting forces sweeping the marketing world: Incr globalization, increased localization, and increased personalization. It will be a great challenge to manage in an environment where these forces are happening simultaneously. Second, building trust. Trust is in serious trouble. Trust in established institutions is in decline. As a result, brand loyalty is in decline. Brand loyalty is about an enduring relationship, and every relationship is built on trust. Building brand trust on a foundation of consistency, integrity, responsibility, and leadership will be a competitive advantage.

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To read the complete interview, please click here.

Larry cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Arcature link

Amazon link

Pearson link

LinkedIn link

Twitter link

Link to Larry’s Wall Street Journal article, “How to Revive MacDonald’s”

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