When Bacardi’s chief executive officer Mike Dolan recruited Zara Mirza to his marketing team over coffee in New York, he asked her what she’d like her job title to be.
It was 2015 and the company was going through a marketing talent shake-up: it was in the process of scrapping the global chief marketing officer role in favour of CMOs from ‘Centres of Excellence’ regionally. Mirza, however, would be invited to “jolt change” in a department growing stale. And for that reason, she needed a head-turning job title.
“When you're trying to inject creativity into the brand side, the client side, the corporate side, you have to be different,” she told The Drum. “I know that sounds simple, but everything – from what you’re called to how you act it – needs to be different to the usual corporate environment.”
Mirza plunked for the title ‘head of creative excellence’. It is, she believes, more than an eyebrow-raising email signature; it was a sign of faith from Dolan, who is due to retire in April next year.
“He wanted me to be confident going into this role,” Mirza recalled. “I’d previously come from outside the industry, I'd only been at Bacardi [as a global communications director] eight months, I was the only woman on his leadership team at that time and I was the youngest. He wanted me to define my own role and play by my own rules – and create my own rules, including what I was called.
“He wasn't interested in calling me VP of this or director of that. It’s helped when you're coming from the outside to build your confidence. Frankly, it's a little bit intimidating, and when you're the only woman round the table, it's quite helpful.”
Until Bacardi came knocking, Mirza’s CV was skewed towards agencies; she was previously a partner at BBH with a background in account management. She moved over to brand to take more control both personally and professionally, citing the growing promiscuity and impatience between clients and their agencies as the push factor and the lure of decision making as the pull.
But, with all due respect to Mirza, why did Dolan hire a booze sector newbie with no creative direction experience in such a creative role?
“I think I showed obvious talent, I knew what I was talking about,” she said. “I had an opinion. But I think importantly I wasn't afraid to tell it. Serendipitously Mike [Dolan] and I were in New York at the same time, and we had a coffee and he asked me what I thought [of the brand].
“I told it to him straight what I thought the opportunities were at Bacardi and I think he really appreciated that. Corporations can get very bureaucratic and when you're trying to drive change within an organization, you just want people telling you the truth – in an optimistic, positive way but not sandbagging you. So from the beginning we had a very open relationship and it works both ways.”
Working alongside Dolan and director of creative excellence Nick Stringer, as well as European and North American marketing heads Shane Hoyne and Mauricio Vergara, Mirza has begun injecting creative life back into a brand that she readily admits "failed to recruit a new generation of drinkers because we weren’t looking at what they were interested in, how they were consuming media and what they were doing when they were going out and having fun with their mates”.
Before Mirza took the job, Bacardi had already began this process by cutting its agency roster right down to a list of two (BBDO and OMD), which has meant its partners now have “a clear expectation of the type of work that we want” and “a shared sense of ambition and similar reference points”, while their client promises to stick with them through both the award-winning campaigns and “duff briefs” and hosts its agency briefings in its bars.
“In this job, I'm not I'm not the one that comes up with the idea. Those come from our amazing creative partners. But you have to be able to spot the kernel of an idea and be able to give provide space to let that idea grow,"said Mirza.
“And it's messy. To anyone who thinks any of these great brand ideas came nicely formed straight out of the machine…it doesn't happen like that. So [in this job] you need the taste to be able to spot an idea, and then you need the confidence and bravery to hold everyone off to let that idea grow and grow over time because you're never going to hit it out the park straight away.”
Upping the Barcadi’s brands’ digital ante was also on Mirza and her colleagues’ to-do list. The marketing team has now increased its online spend to surpass its traditional media budget, leading the way with culturally saturated collaborations with the likes of Swizz Beatz and Major Lazer elevated through partnerships with the likes of Instagram, Snapchat and Pinterest.
In this arguably late digital transformation, the company’s head of creative excellence places weight on Bacardi’s positioning as a brand that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
“What I always say internally and to our agencies is: we’re in the best bit of people's lives,” explained Mirza. “You have your best memories going out and having a drink with your friends. You have your best nights out. You have your deepest conversations. So we’re in a natural part of people's lives. And we’re global, so you’ve got a real chance to impact the world at scale, with substantial budgets behind you.”
To this end, Bacardi has left the likes of virtual reality experiences to its competitors (“You look like a numpty with those [headsets] on in a bar”) and instead focused on innovating in the “new premise” space – the up-and-coming environments outside of the on and off-trade where target consumers can be found. So far it’s inked partnerships with WeWork in Mexico, Airbnb, Secret Cinema and London’s Street Feast markets. Martini is hosting a takeover of its Canada Water premises this weekend (21 July), for instance – but has also been dabbling in tech experimentation behind the scenes.
Two years down the line, Mirza’s job is far from finished, but the brand’s leaps into digital and the cultural sector will not have gone unnoticed by its larger rivals that have had their noses buried in technology and programmatic over the last few years.
“I think the advice I would give for anyone – and it’s not just a female thing – who is on the forefront of driving change in any organisation or agency is you need resilience, said Mirza. “It's unfortunately not enough to just be talented and have the ideas – you need the stamina and the confidence to drive them through the business.”
She added: “But that's why creativity is so important, because everybody can galvanize behind a great idea. If you just talk about processes in a PowerPoint chart, people can fob it off and file it in the bin. But if you present people with the output of that change – fantastic ideas engaging new audiences that are going to drive growth for the business rooted in commercial objectives – people will get behind you. Because every company wants to grow.”