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Alumni in Action

Badger Executive Talk: ‘Marketing Guru’ Gayle Fuguitt Makes Sure Consumers Are Heard

By Jane Burns

October 12, 2020

Gayle Fuguitt (MBA ’80) wants to hear your story. That means the stories of the people she meets and works with, certainly, but she built a trailblazing career ensuring consumers are heard, too.

Fuguitt was vice president of global consumer insights at General Mills, where she established and led the company’s global insights team beginning in 1997 until retiring in 2012. From there she became CEO and president at the Advertising Research Foundation, followed by a tenure as chief of customer insight and innovation at Foursquare. She shared her insights recently during a Badger Executive Talk, a virtual speaker series featuring executives from the UW–Madison alumni community. Vallabh “Samba” Sambamurthy, Albert O. Nicholas Dean of the Wisconsin School of Business, led the conversation and fielded questions from alumni.

Gayle Fuguitt
Gayle Fuguitt

Referred to by Dean Samba as a “marketing guru,” Fuguitt recognized early in her career that it was necessary to bring the consumer to the table in decision-making. That forward thinking approach ran counter to the slow, methodical reputation of traditional market research.

“What senior management said about (traditional market) research was, ‘Oh yeah, you’re the guys who come down off the mountain with your togas and your tablets from time to time,’” Fuguitt says. “I saw so many decisions being made without research and so much time and money being spent perfecting research.”

Instead, Fuguitt bridged that gap by building partnerships inside and outside of the company to create  actionable solutions that were better, faster and cheaper, particularly those focused on technology.  The result was General Mills’ investment to shift 85% of its research to the internet in 1998, reaching consumers comfortably in their home online rather than surveying them by phone or on the street. Further investments in social media and mobile research followed.

With Dean Samba, Fuguitt shared a collection of insights that helped her forge a unique career and leadership journey.

Know what you stand for and believe. Hanging on to that belief will have highs and lows, Fuguitt says, but the principle has guided her career. She believed in the consumer well before most in her profession and organization did. That belief didn’t just forge Fuguitt’s career, it changed an industry.

Find your own way. In the early part of Fuguitt’s market research career, building success meant building an analytic model behind the scenes. Instead, Fuguitt built a business model to bring consumer voices into business decisions. When she delivered on that business model—faster, more reliable research that was less expensive—she, and the company, moved forward.

Ask for what you want. When Fuguitt believed consumer insights should be led at the C-suite level within the company, she told that to General Mills’ future CEO and said the job should be hers. It was scary, she says, but she believed in the role’s importance and her abilities. “He didn’t tell me no,” she says, “but it took a long time.”

Sit at the table, but don’t just sit there. Make sure to contribute, Fuguitt says, otherwise you are just taking up space. “So many of my employees begged to be at the table and they found out quickly that if they didn’t say anything, they wouldn’t be invited again,” she says.

Build as many relationships and alliances as you can. When you are pushing for something new, there will be non-believers. Developing allies within the company and beyond can help you stand firm in your convictions.

Analytics are important, but… Data can help influence decision-makers, Fuguitt says, but you can’t drown them in numbers. Instead, use data to tell a persuasive story. Always keep in mind the question you started with and the decision you want to make through analyzing the data. “Keep those things bolted together,” Fuguitt says.

Additional Badger Executive Talks are scheduled for early 2021: Cheryl Stallworth (MBA ’81), co-founder of ShedLight and former CEO of Firefly on Jan. 27; and Ericson Chan (BA ’90), CEO of Ping An Technology on March 4.

The Badger Executive Talks event page features more information about the talks and links to view past conversations.