Taco Bell’s Global CBO Marisa Thalberg on Looking Inside for Information and Outside for Inspiration

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Marisa Thalberg, Global Chief Brand Officer of Taco Bell, knows what it’s like to juggle career and life better than most. As an accomplished marketing leader of multiple brands, from Luxury to QSR, Marisa also juggled a full-time second career alongside, Executive Moms. Marisa founded Executive Moms in 2002 to help debunk the negative mythology that still exists in popular culture about working moms and to support “fabulous women who are both mothers and professionals”.

“You can question the sanity of giving myself a second career while trying to figure out how to wrestle with the first one, but it became something that I did out of love and desire to support other women and became a big part of my life for many years. I knew my strengths and I had an instant sense of what I wanted this brand to be.  Right from the start, it was a very instinctive feeling about what was missing.”

In this incredibly packed episode, we go deep into what prompted Marisa to launch Executive Moms while Head of Global Advertising at Unilever Cosmetics, along with all the lessons she’s learned along the way that earned her the Chief Brand Officer spot at Taco Bell and continuously drives her success today.

Below are her top five tips for success and an insightful look at how Executive Moms was started, but you definitely will want to tune in for the full podcast and be sure to have a pen and paper handy as Marisa is a well of great advice for any executive today!

Marisa’s Career Tips:

  1. Be Holistic. “I think particularly as women, although I’d like to say as people, we have to be holistic thinkers and consider not just our own individual needs, but how it affects our family and all the different factors that go into the calculus. I was in luxury beauty leading consumer engagement, digital and social marketing across a portfolio of brands. And then Taco Bell called and there was something about the brand that caught my imagination. The more we got to know each other, we just both felt it was the right personal mutual bet to take on each other. And of course, the bigger decision was relocating our whole family from New York to California. But it has been a really incredible journey.”
  2. Practice Lateral Thinking. “Coming from Luxury Beauty into QSR, it was great to be able to really practice lateral thinking and how do you come in very humble and learn a whole new industry, but then figure out the things that actually are the commonalities versus the much more visible differences. I think that’s where you have to approach it with the right attitude of ‘I’m here to bring a perspective’ and marry it with the institutional knowledge of my colleagues. It is a very powerful combination where you’re bringing a different approach. The economics and the model are just completely different than what I was doing in beauty. But the parts that were more easily transferable right away were how to think about brand, how to think about competition, how to think about consumer insights, how do get inspired, which is so much a part of this job. And a phrase I’ve taken to saying to my team, and I’m sure other people could relate to it, is we need to look to our own category for information. But we need to look outside of our category for inspiration. And that’s what I mean a little bit by lateral thinking.”
  3. Embrace your Inner Change Agent. “I’m more of a marketer than a digital person. But I think what I intuited was that it really was about how to come in as a change agent. And transform marketing and see the future may be a few steps ahead of where everyone else was seeing it and bring people along on the journey.  You really learn a lot about yourself in a situation like that and also what it takes to lead with empathy to get people over their fears about change. Respect everything that is already in place and be careful of hubris. Be realistic about where the vulnerabilities are and then where is there an opportunity to grow it.”
  4. Take Time with Agency Partnerships. “Agency partnerships are a big part of how we get everything done, so I’m a big believer in really strong agency partnerships. You have to treat them like truly an extension of your team and not just a vendor. You need to take the time to inform them and share as partners what’s really happening with the business. What am I worried about? Why is this feeling good? Why is this not feeling good? If you don’t have that kind of dialogue, then I just don’t see how you could possibly enable them to be the kind of big creative problem solvers that you really need them to be.”
  5. Be Authentic. “There is a certain aspect of trying to suss out how you’re playing a part. And I believe that to a certain extent there is an appropriateness to making sure we calibrate how we comport ourselves in business. It’s a little different than how you show up with your family or your friends or so forth. But at the end of the day, and I’ll call it both a privilege and a responsibility of moving up the corporate ladder, people are looking to you for signals about how to be and how to behave. People, in general – and it’s no different at work – respond to authenticity. I especially think for younger executives and now I will include very much the men in this as well as the women who are contemplating like how is this going to work when I have a family? And, and that, you know, showing up as this whole person that’s imperfect and, and also showing up, talking about my kids and to me that authenticity of being a real human being and being real with emotions and real in terms of how I experienced success and defeat, I wish I had had more examples of that myself when I was rising up. I think it would’ve given me a lot more of a sense of security and confidence.”

The Journey of Executive Moms

  • The Inspiration. “I became a mom for the first time myself in late 2000 in New York City and was very hungry to forge a sense of connection with other women who had also become moms. I went to, what was at the time, the only real new mothers luncheon that existed in New York. Interestingly, and I’ll never forget this, everyone went around the room and had to self-identify: your baby’s name, what street you lived on and whether you’re going back to work or not. All these women were saying they weren’t going back to work, which raised all sorts of financial and career questions to me.”
  • The Genesis. “I knew I would go back to work and started to get my sea legs as a parent. I was really preoccupied with this idea of where am I going to find community and connection, sometimes maybe a sense of commiseration, that full emotional gamut. At the time I was head of global advertising at Unilever Cosmetics and very connected into the media world because of my job. I was asking various publishers and parenting magazines, ‘hey, what should I join?’ Across the board, the answer was, ‘We don’t know. There isn’t anything. You should go start it.’”
  • The Foundation. “I founded Executive Moms in 2002, which became one of the first and really preeminent organizations to support what I had always described as fabulous women who are both mothers and professionals. And you can question the sanity of giving myself a second career while trying to figure out how to wrestle with the first one, but it became something that I did out of love and desire to support other women and became a big part of my life for many years. I knew my strengths and I had an instant sense of what I wanted this brand to be.”
  • The Promise. “I was absolutely terrified at the prospect of starting something because you’re making a commitment into the world that you’re fearful you won’t be able to fulfill. I think I always had a bit of an entrepreneurial spirit and yet I absolutely never saw myself as having those qualities. But right from the start, it was a very instinctive feeling about what was missing. The more that I got into Executive Moms, I realized that I wanted to understand this audience better and debunk what I saw, and sometimes still see, as the negative mythology that exists in popular culture about working moms.”
  • The Evolution. “Executive Moms became the place NOT to tell you how to live your life differently or better, but rather just to create content and community that would help already terrific women feel just that much more equipped to thrive. I ran it actively for 13 or 14 years as I was simultaneously growing my own career leading luxury brands and now Taco Bell. It’s still my Twitter handle and it’s still a big part of my identity and personal sense of purpose. I think how this conversation evolves is also something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to.”
nadine.dietz@adweek.com Nadine Dietz is chief community officer at Adweek and host of the CMO Moves podcast.