Dana Anderson’s Signature Style of Storytelling Helps Sell More Oreos

The Mondelez marketing strategist is the client agencies wish they had

Dana Anderson, svp, marketing strategy and communications at snack and gum giant Mondelez International, recalls a new business presentation she made in the early 1980s that was anything but sweet. 

Photos: Kyrstina Archer; Hair and Makeup: Ashley Vest; Lettering: Jen Mussari

“I looked at my boss, John Hayter, who was running the [Young & Rubicam Chicago] office, and I said, ‘I think I need a little help.’ I plopped right over and they took me into the office of someone who had a couch. The lady at the front desk thought perhaps I was dying, so she called the medical people and they showed up.”

Thirty years after that fainting spell, she won’t identify the client, though she confides, “We didn’t get the business.”

Today, Anderson laughs as she tells the tale—and well she should. Public speaking has become her forte. She ranks among the most in-demand presenters in the marketing industry, renowned for her wry, witty and insightful presentations at confabs for the Association of National Advertisers and the 4A’s and at the Cannes Lions Festival.

Moreover, she serves as a catalyst for the advertising created by Mondelez brands, which last year invested a collective $180 million in domestic media and about $1.5 billion in marketing worldwide. Working closely with CMO Mary Beth West, to whom she reports, Anderson guides internal teams and outside shops as they shape the public image of brands like Oreo, Cadbury, Trident and Ritz. She joined the company in 2012, when Mondelez spun out of Kraft Foods, and was praised for shaking up the firm’s agency roster by hiring hot young shops and bringing a renewed vigor to its rather predictable creative.

But back to that fainting spell. Anderson was at the time just beginning her career, and when she arrived at work the day after the episode, she was still upset, naturally. Summoned to Hayter’s office, she got a pep talk that transformed an embarrassing moment into a powerful learning experience. “He said, ‘You shouldn’t be nervous. And when you get nervous, I want you to look at me and know I’m fighting for you.’”

That encouragement inspired a period of reflection. “I realized that I was focused on the wrong thing,” Anderson says. “I was focused on how I felt, not on what they”—the client and, by extension, consumers targeted by the company’s advertising—“needed.”

Of course, it was but one event among many that shaped her outlook over the course of a nearly 35-year career. Still, maintaining an outward focus has become an Anderson trademark. Combine that with a love of and talent for narrative storytelling (she studied journalism and advertising at the University of Missouri) and it’s perhaps no surprise that Anderson has guided memorable campaigns and won raves on the speaking circuit.

After nine years at Y&R, she moved across town to JWT, where she ran global planning on Kraft. Next, she launched FCB Chicago’s planning department and rose to CEO, a role she later held at DDB Chicago, also a Kraft shop and her final agency post before going client side in 2009.

At Mondelez, which generated $35 billion in sales last year, she leads brand strategies, consumer insights, design and media (including digital, social and mobile), with the mission of crafting content that transcends tried-and-true marketing tropes. “If you have the choice between being bored and being engaged, that’s an easy pick,” she says. “So we work really hard to make sure we take the right risks and try new things because they almost always pay off—and that makes it so much more fun for people to engage.”

She gets deeply involved in the creative process, devising brand strategies and briefing agencies on their assignments, reviewing work and providing feedback at key points in campaign development.

Getting Krafty

Colleagues say Anderson’s daily demeanor reflects her quirky, impassioned public persona. She can be a ball of energy, rattling off ideas and one-liners, but is also disarmingly plainspoken and direct. Her intense and sometimes demanding approach is tempered by unbridled enthusiasm. “She doesn’t suffer poor creative well at all,” says Tim Scott, president of mcgarrybowen, Chicago, who worked with Anderson for three decades and whose shop currently handles Mondelez’s Toblerone and Tassimo brands. “She challenges all her agencies to ‘get to great’ whether they’re big or small. She keeps pushing.”

Adds Jill Baskin, senior director of global marketing communications for Mondelez’s biscuit brands: “Does her personality get reflected in the work? Yes, in that she frees people up” to stretch their thinking and take chances.

David Droga, creative chairman of Droga5, says of Anderson, “You can see her footprint on the work,” which can be a bit edgy, while still serving its message with a wink and a smile. Droga first collaborated with Anderson three years ago, generating considerable attention for Kraft’s Athenos hummus brand with a spot starring an elderly Greek woman who informs her hip, twentysomething granddaughter: “You dress like a prostitute.” It would have been so easy, Droga says, for Anderson to remove the word “prostitute” from the script and avoid the possibility that anyone would take offense, but “she understood you had to have that dimension to make it pop.”

Now, Anderson and Droga5 are taking chances for Mondelez’s Honey Maid graham crackers by examining the notion of “wholesomeness” in today’s society. Honey Maid focuses on real-life parents from different backgrounds, including gay dads, mixed-race families, a single dad and even a family of punk rockers. The work generated lots of coverage this spring—and a predictable share of complaints. Droga5 responded to naysayers with a memorable video, using printouts of hateful comments the campaign received to spell the word “Love.”

“Willingness to let part of an audience go is bold,” says Catharine Hays, executive director of the Future of Advertising program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, who applauds Mondelez for “doing so with a positive message [that] suggests there is hope for advertisers having a conscience.”

Even the company’s safer campaigns can have a quirky flavor. Oreo’s “Wonderfilled” is a prime example. The mix of live action and animation puts a novel twist on sharing cookies. The campaign’s catchy (some say irritating) theme song has become ingrained in popular culture, inspiring interpretations by Chiddy Bang and others. 

Athenos' spicy greek yia yia.

Honeymaid's families.

Oreo's wonderfilled whimsy

 Matt Williams, CEO of The Martin Agency, which works on “Wonderfilled,” describes the campaign and Honey Maid’s “Wholesome” as “big, expansive ideas. Those are the kinds of ideas Dana and Mondelez demand from their agencies, ideas that endure over time.”

Staying Hungry

Industry experts say Anderson is wise to push for high-profile concepts that can be leveraged across multiple media and markets, as recent financials for Mondelez have left a bad taste with some investors. The company suffered a 70 percent drop in unadjusted first-quarter net earnings to $163 million (although on an adjusted basis, earnings rose 39 cents per share). Revenue has been sluggish as well, down 1.2 percent to $8.64 billion in Q1. Mondelez cut its full-year global organic revenue growth target to 3 percent from 4 percent.

Against that backdrop, Anderson faces numerous challenges, not the least of which is a product mix that some say is anachronistic, if not downright backward, in an increasingly health-obsessed world. “The whole snack-food positioning in a world of obesity is a questionable place to be,” says Jerry Thomas, CEO of research firm Decision Analyst.

Anderson maintains that some Mondelez brands “are really good for you.” She points to Triscuit crackers, whose recipe has just three ingredients (whole-grain wheat, oil and salt), and belVita breakfast biscuits, which feature slow-release carbs for lasting energy. BelVita has received a big push in recent months from Droga5, with a tongue-in-cheek campaign that shows average folks singing the product’s praises after it gives them a boost to get stuff done and declare a “morning win.”

Not all observers are convinced such lighthearted pitches are the way to go, considering the nation’s obesity epidemic. “It’s somewhat reminiscent of tobacco companies that are expanding into e-cigarettes to provide a ‘safe smoke,’ as if there is such a thing,” says Michael Solomon, an industry consultant and professor of marketing at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. “Mondelez has to really double-down on snack foods. They just need to own up to the idea that many of their products provide little guilty pleasures to consumers who are trying to balance the need to be virtuous with the need to reward themselves.”

In fact, that’s the tack some Mondelez brands are taking. “We realize and embrace that a piece of chocolate or an Oreo cookie is a treat and should be used as such,” says Anderson. Adds mcgarybowen’s Scott: “Our whole premise has always been small moments of joy. If we can offer them a small piece of chocolate after dinner, before bed, that [approach] sort of sets the context for the company.”

Mondelez is also setting the context by driving marketing innovation via:

• Project Sprout, a test that employs smaller agencies to create snappier gum ads for various U.S. and overseas markets. The emphasis is on quick turnaround without rigorous testing. (The effort underscores Anderson’s declaration in a recent opinion piece that “the agency of record model is no longer the pathway to Oz for clients or agencies.”)

Blink Studios, a real-time video production hub developed with NowThisNews, primed to help Mondelez quickly react to pop-culture cues and leverage the news cycle to create relevant content. A multifaceted campaign touting the company’s status as the official snack food of U.S. men’s and women’s soccer will use Blink’s resources.

• An expansion of the Oreos “Snack Hacks” campaign in the form of a Web video series featuring star chefs Roy Choi, Nguyen Tran and Michael Voltaggio “remixing” the cookies to create new confections.

While cautious, industry watchers applaud such efforts aimed at generating work that unlocks the creamy center (read: sales potential) of Mondelez brands. “Innovative advertising alone won’t carry the day,” Solomon stresses, “but overall, I think Dana Anderson is doing everything she can to confront her challenges.”

These days, Anderson is certainly someone you won’t find falling down on the job.

Dana Anderson’s public-speaking style could be described as folksy crossed with snarky—you know, “farky.” She’s like Garrison Keillor with an edge. 

Mixing provocative quips and pointed asides with deeply thought-through business perspectives, she comes across as positive but not pandering, a cheerleader whose views gain gravitas because she captains a global marketing team. She’s got the timing of a stand-up comic but can build to the intensity of a preacher at a tent revival. And there’s always a serious message in her sermons.

“My father is a minister, though I’m not sure my passion for presenting comes from there,” says Anderson. She tends to stalk the stage, weaving in and out of her topic, using ad-libs, the occasional Dr. Seuss reference or even a video clip of chimpanzees (showing how they collaborate better than humans) to punctuate her points. “When you’re presenting, you’re stealing time from people they will never get back,” she says. “They have chosen to come and sit there and listen to you, so I think it’s an incredible obligation.”

At the 2011 ANA Masters of Marketing conference in Phoenix, she made a fan of none other than Martha Stewart, herself no slouch at keeping an audience enthralled. The domestic doyenne tweeted that Anderson was “the hidden treasure at this conference … very inspiring.”

Presenting to a packed house of 1,600 in her distinctive Midwestern drawl, that speech encouraged marketers to take risks. It was peppered with memorable sound bites, among them: “We should accept intuition as a valid contributor to clarity,” and “mediocrity is exhausting.”

At the 4A’s Transformation Conference in Los Angeles this past March, she spoke on the topic of collaboration, and the crowd, made up mostly of agency types, roared when she chided them for being “cocky” and making ultimately false claims like “Mobile is at the center of everything we do.” Nancy Hill, president of the 4A’s, says Anderson has the ability to “be brutally honest, but not make you feel like you’ve had a dagger put in your stomach.”

Anderson told the group, “Of course there’s bad ideas. That’s why we’re not all millionaires and billionaires. People mostly have bad ideas. Good ideas are hard to find.” She ended on a positive note, stressing that great collaboration must come from mutual trust or else “it comes out poopy.”