Best Advice from Tony Matta

“Best Advice” is a recurring column on The Message, in which industry veterans Jack Neary and Kevin Spreekmeester—and some of their colleagues—dispense practical advice for people who are just entering the industry.

This week Best Advice talks with Tony Matta, president of Nestlé Coffee Partners. Matta is an accomplished marketing leader, with more than 20 years of experience developing and growing some of the world’s best-known food and beverage brands, including Starbucks, Kraft, PepsiCo and Proctor & Gamble.

Matta holds an Honours Bachelor of Commerce degree from McMaster University in Hamilton, and an MBA from the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.

On early career challenges

If I go back to my days at P&G as an assistant brand manager, I found it difficult to get my agency to see the business the way I saw it and to establish a trusting relationship. Early on, my relationship with the more artistic side of the business was not where I needed it to be. I grew up in a world where the creative side wasn’t as valued.

Given P&G had a very specific way of doing things, we encouraged our agency to follow that method, rather than empowering them to provide out-of-the-box thinking.

You go back to the age-old debate on advertising awards. If you’d asked me in my first year at P&G, “What do you think of agencies winning awards?” I would have said “It’s a complete waste of time—it’s a distraction, it’s ego-building.” Five years later, I would be saying, “I want my teams to be winning every award possible.” In fact, if my teams are not the most celebrated anywhere in the world, then I’m not doing my job right. I believed that if that’s what it means to work on my business, then I’m going to attract the best talent in the world. I wanted creative teams fighting each other to get on the Frito-Lay business.

The lesson for me was to look at barriers as opportunities to do things in a different way.

On valuable early lessons

Another big lesson I learned was to stop trying to figure out who to be, and just be myself. I decided early on that I was going to do things the Tony way, and hopefully there’d be enough common ground between my way and the company’s way for me to be successful.

Early on, it was: You’ve got to actually have the courage to go after stuff others wouldn’t, or in a way they wouldn’t. So, I would win these Renegade awards—which were basically about getting results by breaking all the rules. P&G wanted that. They wanted people who would come in, shake up their business and bring a twist to their culture. Given that P&G is a promote-from-within culture, if you aren’t bringing in that mindset from the beginning and nurturing it, it’s going to die and you’ll end up with a bunch of sameness at the top.

On entering the business today

If you look at marketing today versus 30 years ago, plenty has changed, but there are things that have remained the same. For me, it’s the unchanging things that bear remembering. Number one: Be a hand-raiser.

When I was at Frito-Lay, there was a project that no one wanted to lead. It was an internal campaign to get everyone in the company excited about crossing $1 billion in net revenue, but it pulled you away from your actual work.

I put up my hand, but I did it begrudgingly, thinking this would be a waste of time. But I learned a ton about the company. I met so many people throughout the organization and I inspired literally thousands of people to get excited about our business.

The only way to learn that stuff is by jumping in and doing it. You make yourself highly marketable, both internally and externally, by being known as someone who’s been given a brief that no one’s been given before. For me, raising my hand opened my eyes to the importance of getting outside my little bubble.

Click here to get more Best Advice from industry leaders like Christina Yu, Serge Rancourt, Amber Mac and Terry O’Reilly

On knowing the fundamentals

Everyone tells you to stay current, and I think you should because you need to understand today’s tools of the trade and their context. But I would also say always stick to the fundamentals.

I remember when we first started talking about the value of social media marketing. At the time, everyone was fixated on the tools: Here is a tool that, when I click a button, instead of word-of-mouth taking however long, I can measure overnight how quickly the world can know.

So that technology changed, but what never changed is that the story had to be worthy of retelling from one person to more people, to even more people. The story always had to be interesting. All that happened is that the water cooler became digital. But the core idea of the story has to be a diamond. That’s never going to change.

On mentorship

I’ve never been a really good mentor in the formal sense of the word—the formality of, “Hey, I’m your mentor.” But one thing I was good at was that I didn’t like working in isolation or as a one-man show. It was more fun with others.

I [remember] reading about a Japanese strategy called Keiretsu, which is the idea that you build impenetrable strategies by linking various businesses together. Instead of having a company work on its own, you have a system of companies working together, forming a network that is much tougher to breach than if they are all operating apart.

I remember applying this approach to form a Doritos Keiretsu. It made us all better, because we completely learned from each other in a non-competitive way. Ideas came up that we would never have thought up on our own. It was network of like-minded people and brands. Surround yourself with a diverse group of thinkers, and good things happen.

Tony’s Golden Rule

My best advice, in a nutshell, is always about leadership. If you’re going to be a marketer, you have to lead. And that means being useful. To me, it’s the simplest, most powerful definition of what leadership is: Be useful in whatever context presents itself. It can be about setting a vision, removing a barrier, or simply staying out of the way and letting your team deliver.