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Student Experience

Always On the Bleeding Edge

A C-Suite perspective on innovating amidst change

By Paul Smirl

January 16, 2019

Gayle Fuguitt is the go-to voice on how advertising works.

After earning her Wisconsin MBA, a 32-year career at General Mills, and a founding role for the Wisconsin School of Business’ A.C. Nielsen Center for Marketing Research, she joined the Advertising Research Foundation in 2013 as CEO and president. During her tenure there, and over the course of four months, she and her team completed an extensive research study titled, “How Advertising Works Today.”

It subverted many of the previous held opinions on advertising, showing that there were tens of billions of dollars that could be better used if companies took a more multi-channel approach, adding digital to television, for instance.

“I just am out there leading at the bleeding edge all the time. It’s just me. I can’t help myself. I’m compelled,” said Fuguitt to a room of consumer insights professionals and Wisconsin Full-Time MBA students and alumni at the biennial A.C. Nielsen summit at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

As the summit’s final speaker, Fuguitt presented on her career and the diverse lessons she’s learned in leadership and consumer insights, inspiring attendees with a mix of professional and personal stories that traversed the cubicle, the boardroom, and ultimately her current work setup—a connected desktop more akin to a picnic table in an open office at Foursquare.

Fuguitt encouraged attendees to strive for change, be mindful of where trends are moving, and to advocate for yourself, your company, and always the consumer.

Gayle Fuguitt presenting to an audience.
Gayle Fuguitt (MBA ’80) speaks to Wisconsin MBA students and consumer insights leaders at the A.C. Nielsen Summit.

Becoming a leader and managing change

After having 19 bosses in 21 years, Fuguitt learned to make the most of changing dynamics at General Mills. As she put it, “if you see a lot of change, then get out and manage it.”

Fuguitt earned a position as the first officer ever to lead the company’s newly established Global Consumer Insights Organization in 1997, marking a pivotal moment in her career where she was moving into new territory, but was confident she knew how to do the job.

As she noted to the audience, she did not. When General Mills’ eventual CEO called Fuguitt into his office to offer her the position, she bluntly stated, “I know exactly how to do this job.”

The eventual CEO was not convinced. “No, Gayle, you don’t know how to do this job,” he said. “I’m placing a bet on you that you’ll be able to learn.”

“Thank God he told me that because he was right,” Fuguitt alerted the audience. “I had no idea how to do that job, I figured out … It’s really about this idea of who can respond to change?”

As Fuguitt described the rest of her time at General Mills, it was apparent that she responded successfully, and took initiative when her department needed direction.

She formed relationships throughout the company, analyzed new trends and technologies, and eventually was tasked with leading General Mills’ $70 million internet research strategy and investment in 1998, well before many companies knew how the internet worked.

With her team having already completed 100 internet research studies, Fuguitt was well prepared when she took on the challenge, helping ensure success for the company.

New challenges and seminal research

Fuguitt retired after 15 years as General Mills’ vice president of global consumer insights—but retirement didn’t last long. Months after leaving General Mills, she got the itch to keep working and seeking challenges, and moved to the nonprofit sector to reshape the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF). The ARF is an over 80-year-old organization dedicated to curating and creating original research in advertising, research, insights, and analytics.

There she took on “How Advertising Works Today,” a comprehensive analysis of advertising practices. Fuguitt began by corralling industry leaders from ARF’s board into the same room. Instead of giving them a traditional pitch on where the study would lead, she asked them to gather in groups and design “ground truth” experiments.

“I didn’t have a deck … I didn’t walk in with what I thought our experiments needed to be,” explained Fuguitt. “I think when you make a personal appeal like that, it can be really powerful.”

Fuguitt’s personal approach worked, and the board members helped her bring to life the early blueprint for where the study was headed.

Ultimately, “How Advertising Works Today,” was heralded as the most important research on advertising in 28 years and changed the way corporations think about and invest in advertising.

Run, don’t walk to the decision table. Find the table and represent your consumer every day.

Gayle Fuguitt (MBA ’80)

Creating jobs and building careers

For Fuguitt, passion and strong principles have been important no matter where she’s worked. Now the chief of customer insight and innovation at Foursquare, Fuguitt is behind the scenes compared to her high-pressure past roles, joking that a younger coworker interested in consumer insights was asked if she had ever met Gayle Fuguitt.

Fuguitt told summit attendees to be yourself, own your values, and make no compromises: “If you see something big that’s moving and it looks like it’s moving and pulling things away from your area or things that you feel are personally important to you, then see if you can’t get out from under.”

Professionally, Fuguitt advised embracing connections with the people who buy your products, do real-time measurement, and relentlessly fight for the consumer. “Run, don’t walk to the decision table. Find the table and represent your consumer every day,” Fuguitt urged.

Looking back on her career, Fuguitt is newly proud to tell her own story after years of Midwestern humility. She likes to point out the career building she’s done for others above all else. She says she will be remembered for the jobs she created and the people who she was able to mentor.

“[My] legacy is going to be the people and people’s careers—and helping people build their careers and figure out who they were, who they wanted to be and what they wanted to do, and then build jobs.”

The A.C. Nielsen Center for Marketing Research supports the Wisconsin MBA Program’s industry-leading marketing research specialization. With the program’s hands-on learning, industry engagement, and 100 percent internship placement rate, Wisconsin students go on to top-level consumer insights roles at global companies. Gayle Fuguitt (MBA ’80) was one of the initial External Advisory Board members helping to greatly shape the program.

The center’s biennial conference features keynote speakers, breakout sessions, and the chance for students to connect with insights leaders from Google, P&G, Microsoft, Ipsos, Foursquare, and many others companies.