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Jill Griffin: Exec Guides Winners of Tomorrow

Jill Griffin will tell you she’s a fairly evenly divided right-brain, left-brain kind of person.

That balance is how the president and chief commercial officer of one of Orange County’s largest and fastest-growing marketing organizations, Advantage Solutions Inc. (Nasdaq: ADV), has managed to succeed in an industry that is ever-changing.

“Marketing, to me, is just the perfect blend of strategy, creative, finance and science. It’s art and science combined,” she said.

Griffin has been at Advantage since 2008. She joined the business’ emerging marketing services group, which was generating about $30 million in revenue at the time. The company’s marketing partners division is now about a $1 billion business.

Advantage, with $3.2 billion in revenue last year, has a behemoth menu of service offerings that ranges from helping companies such as Unilever and McCormick & Co. to working directly with retailers like Walmart and Kroger on their sales and marketing strategies. The product line includes everything from in-store samples to full-service creative and digital advertising.

Advantage’s reach is so widespread, it’s about as ubiquitous as some of the clients it serves and, yet, it’s not a household name.

“We sit between brands and retailers and shoppers, and we are constantly evolving our capabilities to service what those needs are,” Griffin said.  

Griffin’s expertise nabbed her an honor at the Business Journal’s annual Women in Business Awards late last month during a luncheon held at the Irvine Marriott.

Dynamic Industry

That constant movement and evolution has been a theme in the profession since Griffin first studied marketing at the University of Minnesota’s Curtis L. Carlson School of Management.

“Marketing is dynamic no matter what and I think that in my time in the space, which is now a long time—longer than I want to admit, more than two decades—there’s been this tremendous evolution. When I started this, I didn’t even have a cellphone. I had a dial-up PC,” she recalled.

“Every time there’s a massive change, it changes the game in marketing because it’s about connecting with people and communication.”

Navigating 2020

Even before 2020, omnichannel and how to get in front of consumers wherever they were shopping was all over retailers’ market strategies. COVID simply accelerated innovation on that front.

“When the pandemic hit, every marketer had to reconsider virtually everything about their go-to-market [strategy]. How do we communicate to our audience to fully leverage all the ways people are experiencing a brand and all the high expectations that shoppers have for how they buy online, in a store, at the curb or all of the above? This is the environment that I love because it’s very dynamic and the winners of today may not be the winners of tomorrow. Anybody can win,” Griffin said.

Advantage was considered an essential business and, in many cases, the company was able to repurpose workers, during the pandemic Griffin said. For example, employees who had once interfaced with customers in store on sampling, were used to help with cleaning and stocking.

Advantage’s leadership began meeting three times a week during the pandemic to discuss hot topics and ensure connectedness across the company, and those meetings continue to this day.

Workers at the corporate office are currently working on a hybrid office schedule, and the longer-term plan will be decided on a market-by-market basis.

Employee-led resource groups also helped build connections at the company during last year’s challenges and remain today. The company currently counts eight employee resource groups aimed at cultural inclusivity and personal and professional growth.

Last year also proved a time to, as Griffin puts it, get “very clear” around programs the company had been piloting on the virtual or digital side before the pandemic.

That included initiatives such as digital product demonstrations and grocery sampling through the online channel—when customers receive samples with the delivery of their online orders.

“These were things that we were working on and then they just became so necessary during the pandemic, that we scaled these services very rapidly, and they are still adding value today,” Griffin said.

The executive pointed out that retail media networks, or ad platforms, are an important new area of focus for the business and its clients.

The networks are a version of in-store advertising, but via the digital channel in much the same way online media companies may have sponsored posts on their site.

“It’s a very important trend right now for brands and retailers to figure out, because retailers all have very, very important followings. They have audiences. They have media vehicles that can be leveraged by brands for messaging, and there is just a great deal of work going on to formalize the value of all of these retail properties as media vehicles.”

A company like Gig Retail, which Advantage acquired earlier this year, provides retail media consulting and further bolsters Advantage’s capabilities on that front.

The company’s Amp Agency also bought SmallTalk this year, which adds more digital capabilities to the overall business.

“Advantage is historically a very acquisitive company so we’re always trying to advance our capabilities and sometimes that means we build them organically and sometimes we will do that via acquisition. This is a constant cycle for us, which is very exciting,” Griffin said, adding there are other companies Advantage is eyeing.

That constant cycle of growth for Advantage and change in the industry has Griffin continually focused on employee retention.

“It’s really important that we’re constantly a place where we can attract and retain the very best talent to come and innovate and grow,” she said of what keeps her up at night.

“That also applies to when we are able to acquire a company. We want that talent to stay and build with us. So, really creating an inclusive environment for diverse talent where people want to stay and build their careers is a big focus for me.” 

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