Impossible Is Nothing – that’s the attitude that permeates adidas and how Vicky Free is approaching her new career challenge at the brand. The new Head of Global Marketing, landed in Germany in the middle of the pandemic seeing endless possibilities both professionally and personally.
She explains why seeing possibilities is as important for adidas employees as it is for the consumer. We talk about career choices, the dangers of being comfortable, and how she wore the 3-Stripes to her wedding day. Listen to our chat, and scroll down to see how the Impossible Is Nothing campaign is coming to life with our partners.
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Podcast Interview Transcript
I’m delighted today to have the chance to chat with Vicky Free, our new Head of Global Marketing here at adidas. Vicky comes to us with a wealth of experience as a marketeer and storyteller. She also joins the company at a really exciting time. We’ve just launched our new five-year strategic business plan, and now, our new brand attitude. I’m going to be chatting to Vicky about her career, getting her take on why this new brand attitude is so important for adidas and also picking her brains on the role of brands and marketing for Gen-Z consumers. Vicky, welcome.
Thank you, happy to be here.
It’s so nice to have a chance to actually chat to someone face-to-face as well, which is a rarity in these corona times.
That is indeed a rarity. It’s exciting to breathe the same air with you.
You must still be getting your head around this giant organization and historic brand because, in the last three months, you’ve started a new job and relocated to a new country in the middle of a pandemic. How’s that been for you?
It has been incredible. It has been scary. It has been challenging. Not to give away the spirit of our brand attitude, but it has definitely challenged me to see the possibilities.
You’ve only been in Germany for a month of that time, so really still getting to grips with a new culture and a new lifestyle. Who did you bring with you?
I brought my new husband, we’ve been married just over six weeks. We actually married seven days before our plane took off to fly to Germany. A lot of new in my life. Truly, what gives me so much joy every single day is my little pup, Simba. He is absolutely the fur baby of our life.
Now, I have had the pleasure to witness little Simba but only on screen. I also was slightly disappointed that he’s not here today but that’s been some real solace for you?
Absolutely. He’s small but mighty, and I swear, he talks to me every night. If I get home too late, he lets me know he has a problem with it.
Nice. The constant reminder. “I need some time.” I like that.
Becoming a global marketing specialist
Tell me a bit about your career to this point and how you came to us at adidas.
I am a marketer at heart. Interestingly, I thought, for those of you who might know US media, I grew up at a time where Katie Couric reigned supreme. My undergraduate degree is in broadcast journalism. I thought for sure I would be a broadcast journalist – I was going to be the next Katie Couric. As life turns out, nothing ever goes as planned. I was working for a local television station, and the head of sales and marketing decided she would mentor and coach me.
She watched me, she coached me, and she said to me that I had a knack for articulating my ideas on paper in a way that others could pick it up and run-execute it. She said, “You will do well in my side of the business in marketing. Why don’t you consider an opportunity with me?”
This was the first example of me learning that as humans we join brands, but we really work for and develop relationships with people, and it’s the people that make all the difference. It was that invitation that changed my entire outlook on my career, moving from broadcast journalism into marketing.
The 3-Stripes opportunity knocks
That’s what my career has been about. Then as luck would have it, I got a call from the ‘3-Stripes brand’. I’ll tell you, it actually wasn’t a call, it was an email. I thought it was a joke. I thought, I’m going to respond to this email and the next email I will get, will say, “Send me your bank account and send us a cheque,” because I thought this has got to be a joke.
I took a couple of days and it just gnawed at me. I was like, “it’s the 3-Stripes brand, maybe it’s real”. I responded I said, “I’m interested to learn more.” That led to about six or seven weeks of interviews and conversations that shaped my decision, the courage to say I’m all in, I’m excited on what I can bring to the brand, and I’m excited to extend the legacy of the 3-Stripes family into the next ether. That’s what brought me here.
What was your relationship with adidas before you joined the company? I heard a rumor that you actually got married in 3-Stripes. I couldn't imagine how that would be true.
I did. I couldn’t jump the broom without bringing the 3-Stripes with me because it really was jumping the broom into this whole new opportunity with adidas here in Bavaria.
Just describe your wedding outfit then. I'm imagining white dress and a pair of Superstars.
I wore them to the wedding. I did switch out for the actual bridal march, but then quickly switched back and I was able to dance all night in them.
Well, there you go. Many a bride would agree that comfort on the dance floor trumps a six-inch elevation at most points during a wedding. I like that.
Learning to lead
I think our careers are never really a straight path. They are a journey as you have described. When you reflect back on your career so far, are there any points that you always fall back on for reassurance or inspiration, or a little confidence booster?
There are many. For me though, it was the shift from being an individual contributor, managing a project end to end, being accountable to what I delivered and my timeline to leadership, leading people. I was a senior director at the McDonald’s Corporation and was a high performer, had put a lot of points on the board and was really quite proud of the work that I’d done.
I made the decision to shift into entertainment and I went to Turner Broadcasting. I was a vice president of entertainment marketing for TNT and TBS. I led a team of six direct reports and about 42 full-time employees.
I had to understand what the career aspirations were for the people that I was accountable to lead. I had to really understand what was their magic sauce, what was the superpower they were bringing to the table, and how can I unlock that against our strategy to drive growth? It also meant that I had to give them space to do it their way and assurance that we expect some failure, because we want you to push the boundaries.
I had to assure them that they were safe to take some risk and that I would be there to defend and support them, and I’m trying to carry that even now as I enter into this massive global organization.
At the end of the day, we are a group of people committed to the 3-Stripes life. We have to figure out how to work well with each other, how to collaborate when we don’t agree, and how to give each other space to bring out best selves to the table.
Allow failure and support risk-taking
I think that ability to fail is so important. As a team member, to know that you can try things and push things, and it is okay if not everything is a success because otherwise, how do you ever try ‘new’?
If you don’t create a safe space for failure, you will live in eternal safe mediocrity. You will never push the boundaries of what’s new and innovative. You’ve got to be willing to take some big swings. Now, you want to do that in the context of great insight of pressure testing the business and operations model around it. But if we’re not a bit uncomfortable, if we’re not stretching ourselves beyond our comfort zone, then we’re just going to be safely mediocre. Who wants to be part of a brand that’s safe and mediocre?
That’s not what our legacy is. If you think about the way we were founded – we were founded at the precipice of risk. Literal risk to go after Jessie Owens and put our product on his feet. At that time, in that era, risking not only our founder’s life, but his family’s life.
Risk is part of our DNA. We can never forget that. I think there’s a lot of pride in that. Part of our three Cs is confidence. Whenever I think about that story, it gives me the confidence to say, “We have a big job to do, and we can do it.” The only way to do it is to take some degree of risk and to create a safe place for us to do that as an organization.
The new Job – Head of Global Marketing at adidas
Three months into your role, I think a large part of the first few months of any new job is working out the business, your place in the business, what the role is actually going to be. So, now that you're a few weeks in, how do you see your role taking shape and what are you excited to concentrate on first?
That’s a great question. I will tell you it’s easy to get sucked into the vortex of, charts, and PowerPoints, and meetings, and business units, and markets. All great things, but as a new person, you can get lost in all of that.
Listen and learn
My first one-on-one with Kasper was really a defining point in how I am approaching things now. He said to me, “Look, you don’t have a point of view yet.” And I got to tell you, it was like 1,000 pounds of weight lifted off my shoulder because he’s right.
Then I call it the second L is to learn. I bring over 20 years of global marketing and brand expertise to this organization. I’ve got to marry what I know, with what I’ve heard. Then I’m best positioned to lead. I’m very much so still in the second L of learning. I’ve been doing a lot of listening, and now I’m synthesizing that with what I know to be true as an expert in my specific function.
I’m ready and gearing up to lead. That chat with Kasper made a huge difference. Where is my focus? The role that I’m in right now has been open for about 18 months. It’s been absent. By definition, the function of a global marketing and communications team has been nascent in some ways. So, my first job, my first focus is to build a world-class global brand-led marketing and communications team.
That’s a big job and I’m relying on a lot of support to get there, but that’s what job one is for me.
Global Marketing to Gen-Z consumers
Let's chat a little bit about marketing more specifically. Now, I'll hold my hands up and say, I'm not a marketer. These questions come from a place of understanding the technical aspects of what marketing is, especially for our younger consumer, the Gen-Z. Let me ask you this: How do you see the role of brands and marketing in the lives of these young gen Z consumers and how is it changing?
When we think about our Gen-Z consumer and those younger, they are marketers, they are brands themselves. You don’t market to Gen-Z, you market with Gen-Z. They are co-creators of communications. They are leveraging social media as media channels for their point of view. I think it starts with that. This consumer segment is equally interested in the best, most innovative product as they are interested in a brand’s purpose and mission. They are holding brands accountable to be relevant in the things that matter, whether that is sociopolitical causes, economical, political causes, they are activists at heart, and they don’t believe that the big-box business is the way to drive change. We have to tap into what matters to them.
Also, our younger consumers are the most diverse and the most diverse, even within diversity. The dimensions of diversity that matter to them are so huge and dynamic that we’ve got to understand, how do we build relevance and drive demand and celebrate this diversity in a very real way?
They are focused on inclusivity. They believe space should be available for no matter who you are to have access to whatever the world has to offer. In our lane, it’s sport. Let’s face it, there is a lot of inequity in sport. When you think about girls and women and the dropout rate of girls in team sports, all across the globe, there’s an opportunity there. When you think about different faith and how you practice sport and wear modesty wear. When you think about the fact that our LGBTQ+ community and how they are accepted in the world of sport.
We have a lot of opportunity as a leading brand to put a megaphone behind our point of view that ‘through sport, we have the power to change lives’… and I always say ‘for all’. We have an opportunity to put a megaphone behind that because we are taking action in this area. We also need to double down on this area because that segment, Gen-Z, they want to see it. They want to understand that it is important to us, and they expect us to be in the moment with that point of view around a sustainable planet and an inclusive brand.
It really is about what we do, even more than what we say, in many ways?
I would say what we do first than what we say, because I do believe as a marketer, you can do a lot, but if you’re not smart about telling people, then you can’t expect them to pay attention on a mass level, but you want to take action first, then tell people about it.
Seeing the possibilities in Impossible Is Nothing
So, we're at a very exciting point. It's like a real busy and dynamic time that you've arrived at the company and which is super exciting. Our new strategic business plan dropped in March and now, as this goes live, the new brand attitude, Impossible Is Nothing is also live to the world. Why do you think it's important to have our attitude laid out like this for both staff and consumers? It's everyone, I guess
It is everyone and I think actually it’s most important to our first customer, which is the 60,000 plus teammates. It’s so important that everyone who is committed to adidas and works for adidas understands what we’re trying to do and believes in our ability to do it.
If our teammates see possibilities as employees here at adidas and can speak confidently about adidas’ position to see possibilities for all.
The value of that can’t be bought. We can’t buy that quality of media, of influence without our employees. I think it has to start internally and then we shout it to the consumer and we show it through our brand partners.
I think the beauty of the expression today is in our attitude of ‘seeing possibilities’.
The world has been in a pandemic where the answer to most questions has been no. No, you can’t go see your friends. No, you can’t go see your family. No, you can’t go to a restaurant. No, the Olympics is not happening. No, no, no. I think the spirit of Impossible Is Nothing is yes. We see the possibility and I think this campaign is going to touch hearts and minds of consumers and awaken this idea of what’s possible, no matter what the challenge is. So, I’m really, really excited about the timing of Impossible Is Nothing and this new lens on Impossible Is Nothing around ‘seeing possibilities’ as bold, rebellious, optimists.
Culture eats strategy for breakfast
Nice. Let me play a slight devil's advocate here. How do we make this more than just words on paper? Which is it's very easy to come up with a good marketing slogan, but how do we bring this to life for our staff and then let it spill over out of the company to our consumer?
I think if it’s only words, we fail. It has to be modeled. It has to be tangible. I also think we can bring it to life through the possibility of more voices to shape what our culture here is at adi.
How do we from a bottom-up approach, hear more from our employees about what they need to see in our workspaces and our work life? What does a balanced life-work look like at adidas?
Where all voices are heard and respected because the culture is who we are and culture can enable strategy.
You’ve heard the line probably that culture eats strategy for breakfast every day. I think that’s true, because a lot can live beautifully on paper in a PowerPoint, but until it’s lived by the humans who are accountable to bring it to life, we won’t be successful.
I think incubating ‘seeing possibilities’ in a very real way for every one of our employees is going to be key to us living it and making the strategic business plan real.
Finally, let me ask you this on the day that Impossible Is Nothing drops to the world. How do you want the consumer to feel when they come into contact with that for the first time?
I want them to stop. I think our campaign has the ability for stopping power and I’m, frankly, don’t think we’ve had that for a while. I want them to take notice and I think they will. I also think, they’ll say, “Gosh, they’ve captured the way I feel. They captured what I’ve wanted to see over the last 13 months, that possibilities haven’t been present.”
I hope there’ll be inspired to continue to see possibilities and that when they see the 3-Stripes on their neighbors, as they’re going back to the airport, as they’re at the market, as they’re getting dressed themselves, that they will put on those 3-Stripes and feel empowered to see possibilities in their lives and make that connection back to our brand.
Super exciting to talk to you, Vicky. Thanks for your time today.
IMPOSSIBLE IS NOTHING
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