Target’s CMO: ‘The truth hurts’

May 16, 2014

The email published on Gawker from an anonymous Target worker claimed the company’s headquarters is "in bad shape and in desperate need of help, direction and vision, starting from the top down." The response, in short, from Jeff Jones, chief marketing officer at Target: "The truth hurts."

Mr. Jones went public with a post on LinkedIn to address reports that have depicted Target as a corporate culture in crisis.

The email on Gawker was quite specific about the problems facing Target including:

Weak management – Replacing the CEO and CIO were good first steps, but everyone with the exception of Mr. Jones "needs to go."

Lack of original thinking – Target’s buy online, pick-up in-store and streaming video service are two examples of management’s me-too approach to business.

Staff working at 50 percent of capacity – The company has more workers than it needs because half their time is spent in meetings or participating in volunteer or Fast Fun & Friendly ("basically an excuse to not be working") events.

Passive aggressive culture – People ostracized for questioning why things are done the way they are. Getting promoted at Target is more about popularity than talent and hard work.

Canada – Expanding up north was a mistake that’s getting worse. Executives who failed to get the job done in Canada have come back to the U.S. and received promotions.

Mice abandoning a sinking ship – People are looking for jobs outside the company and emails regularly go out that, "So and So has resigned to pursue other opportunities."

In his post, Mr. Jones admitted that his initial response to the Gawker report was anger, but "team members speaking with honesty is a gift." While he would have preferred that the conversation with the unnamed co-worker had been done face-to-face and in-house, he admitted that "much" of what was posted was true. He did not, however, address the specifics of what was or was not accurate.

"The very real fact of the matter remains, we have hard work to do," wrote Mr. Jones. "The kind of work that is unafraid to challenge what we’ve known and what has worked in the past. The kind of work that expects more than ever from our team, and ourselves. The kind of work that will be uncomfortable, in order to make Target irresistible."

While admitting that some elements of Target’s way of doing business could prove to be negative going forward, Mr. Jones felt the pros, particularly in marketing, outweighed the cons.

"Even on our worst day, we have assets most brands would covet," he wrote. "Tens of millions of consumers each week share their love for Target with their wallets and their voices. … We are taking bold risks and innovating like never before."

Which of the criticisms of Target in the Gawker piece is the most troubling, if true? What do you think of the decision by Jeff Jones to publicly respond to anonymous criticism of Target?

Join the Discussion!

25 Comments on "Target’s CMO: ‘The truth hurts’"

Notify of

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Dick Seesel

Every company is entitled to build its own culture, and it’s easy for an anonymous blogger to air grievances that may or may not be personally motivated. What company (retail or otherwise) doesn’t have its share of disgruntled employees, whether or not they have the megaphone of Gawker?

With that being said, Target does seem to be an unusually inbred company. Many of us have commented on this since the departure of the CIO and then the CEO. (And a bit of full disclosure: I worked for Target’s predecessor company, Dayton Hudson Corporation, from 1978 to 1982…a lifetime ago.) The challenge for an incoming CEO will be to overturn the attitude of “we’ve always done things this way” common in any homegrown organization, without disrespecting the very real underlying assets and talent at Target.

Ken Lonyai

Those on the outside can never really know what’s going on in Target, so everything has to be taken with a grain of salt. On the one hand an anonymous mid-level employee got some press for insights and/or complaints; on the other, Jeffrey Jones didn’t say anything of substance in a damage control reaction.

Target needs to find the ideal CEO and has to balance rushing to fill the position and start healing, against making a bad choice. Ultimately they will have to get serious about fixing their problems, possibly their culture, and endure what will probably be a few years of rebuilding their image. The horse is out of the barn.

Dr. Stephen Needel

The passive-aggressive approach strikes close to home – my wife used to work at Target. Unhappy employees will always lead to weaker customer service and Target rivals Walmart for unhappy employees.

Target clearly has a problem and if everyone knows it, then responding publicly and positively is a good decision. A little disingenuous to suggest the employee should have handled it internally – that’s how you get fired from Target.

David Biernbaum

Having worked with, and around, several big corporations myself, I’m not surprised by anything said or written here by the anonymous poster nor the CMO. That said, it would be helpful to know how close to the top and what type of view of the top is had by the anonymous poster. Overall, though, you could probably substitute the name Target with many other companies.

Max Goldberg

Target clearly has a number of problems that require leadership, vision and a return to a strong core story that will inspire workers and clearly communicate to consumers what Target stands for. I’m glad that Mr. Jones acknowledged the problems, but it’s rather disingenuous to say that his department, marketing, is not at fault. Target needs to do some soul searching to determine where it fits into the scheme of retailers.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.

With a culture so unwilling to question strategies and decisions that it takes this kind of action to bring acknowledgement of a problem, this does not bode well for the future of the organization. Maybe this response brings some acknowledgement from management that there is a problem. However, problems are rarely solved by the people who create them.

Ryan Mathews

They are all aspects of the same problem. Weak management has no vision and that causes the smart “mice” (is this a new politically correct term for rats?) to jump ship.

Reads like Jeff Jones might have been the anonymous source, since he was the only one saved from the digital savaging. [Just kidding … maybe]

Was it a good idea? Only if he’s bidding for a big promotion or a new job someplace else.

Paula Rosenblum

Take a look at Target’s web site. It really speaks to how the company has devolved (I think I may have written that here before). Nothing cool there, particularly. Just a very me-too mass merchant.

None of us can comment on internal politics…but what we see is what the customer gets, and it has clearly gone off-point.

Carol Spieckerman

While I liked many aspects of Mr. Jones’ missive, the fact that he did it in response to an anonymous Gawker post from a disgruntled employee makes Target look weak and reactionary (once again). He could have easily penned an original post that addressed internal concerns and external criticism. Doing so would have made him seem like a proactive team player (especially since he was singled out as a positive influence in the Gawker post).

I’ve found it interesting how much he has remained in the background since assuming the chief marketing post – quiet or completely absent in earnings calls, with Mr. Steinhafel and Kathie Tesija as the primary spokespeople. Is he clearing his throat now in order to position for ascension?

Jeff Weidauer
Jeff Weidauer
3 years 5 months ago

World-class companies accept – even solicit – feedback from both internal and external sources. Too many companies turn a deaf ear to complaints from employees or customers; more than a few actively discourage internal debate and “cold light of day” discussions – even at the senior level.

The learning here, and not just for Target, is to ask for input and make it easy to provide feedback. The next step is to show change resulting from that feedback. It’s not complicated, but it is hard to do consistently.

Constructive discontent is the fuel for growth, and ignoring or discouraging that kind of feedback leads to “ivory tower syndrome” and ultimately, loss of relevance to employees, customers and stakeholders.

Ed Dunn
3 years 5 months ago

Target’s original thinking matured the concept of pop-up stores before pop-up was cliche. It was Target who made inroads into urban areas like Chicago with the big box format. And the most successful recent endeavor was the Target/Missoni exclusive line that was copied by others in the industry. This Gawker article seem to be someone with sour grapes than someone who can provide fair criticism and give credit where credit is due.

There is legitimate criticism, such as why there is a Super Target trying to compete in the grocery space, the really lame cafeteria with gas station quality food and product lines that appeal only to a narrow audience but this Gawker article is not even close to being worthy of a credible discussion.

Ed Rosenbaum

We do not know if this was from a “whistleblower” or a disgruntled employee who did not get promoted. I do give Mr. Jones credit for stepping up to the plate and addressing the issue if only to acknowledge it. He could have hidden behind a “wordsmith” press release but did not.

Adrian Weidmann
Living here in Minneapolis, there are two points made regarding Target that resonate. First, Minnesota is the land of passive aggressiveness. It permeates many aspects of life here – from driving behavior to business relationships. There’s definitely a dark closet behind that “Minnesota Nice” which could certainly manifest itself in trying to introduce new innovative concepts and ideas in an enterprise environment. I had a personal experience wherein a Target employee had reached out to me to explore a consulting engagement. After meeting with me and sharing their challenges, I was asked to submit a proposal outlining “how” I would address their challenges. I submitted a proposal for an engagement that affirmed my understanding of the problem along with my professional qualifications to design a solution – not “how” I would solve the problem – the “free” consulting trap. After submitting my proposal, the individual never accepted any of my phone calls. I found out that they were never authorized to pursue outside consultation. There is no doubt that Target has, as Mr. Jones notes, “assets that most brands would covet.” There is a lot of talent available that would be interested to help Target leverage those assets with the… Read more »
gordon arnold

This is madness on an intolerable scale. There are absolutely no winners in this unidentified call to attention. Targets board of directors must respond to this quickly and in force or face the street and find nothing but disgust and sell off.

Ian Percy

Most of us won’t like this supposition, but truthfully it doesn’t take much to create a culture of alignment, innovation, commitment, customer focus and so on. I just read an article about how Satya Nadella has “completely” changed Microsoft culture in a mere three months.

Now has MS culture really changed or are people simply creating a facade of change to appease the new guy? Time will tell. But if Microsoft culture can be changed, all cultures can be changed. Well maybe with the exception of Washington.

Lewis Olishansky
Lewis Olishansky
3 years 5 months ago

The Canadian rollout of Target stores has been a disappointment for shoppers here. The expectation was for better assortments and pricing, a replication of the cross border shopping experience. That didn’t materialize.

In addition, the rush to open reflected in poorly inventoried stores.
Target failed to come through and consumers reacted. I am not sure if it is not too late to correct the initial impression.

George-Marie Glover
George-Marie Glover
3 years 5 months ago

Only time will tell whether the decision for Mr. Jones to pay so much heed to an anonymous post was wise or not. Sometimes quickly acknowledging and addressing a negative issue results in a shorter cycle of attention than trying to ignore or refute it. More important is what direction Target moves into next. Will they be able to rebuild trust with their customers? I don’t think it’s necessary to always be the innovator, as long as you build upon it and create your own twist.

As a shopper, I have noticed a palpable change in the atmosphere at the Target where I shop. Morale is definitely down and it shows in the upkeep of the store. Hopefully, this is a temporary set-back.

Lee Kent

Every “family” has its issues and the Target family is no different. Especially after such public scrutiny as they have seen lately. Time for healing and re-evaluating culture and company.

Do I think Mr. Jones should have spoken out to an anonymous blogger? Absolutely. Was his message what was needed? Absolutely NOT!

As a marketing guy, Mr. Jones should have known better that to address some of the specifics pointed out. Instead he should have given some rah rah, this is what we are doing and we are going to dust the dirt off of our good name, blah blah blah, and that’s my 2 cents….

Li McClelland
Li McClelland
3 years 5 months ago

Wow. All these criticisms are concerning and all seem as though they are very realistic from what we’ve been allowed to publicly see of the company recently. The “overstaffing” necessitated by underwork/underutilization of employees because they spend so much time in meetings and events strikes a particular chord with me.

Craig Sundstrom

Has any company’s rep fallen so far or so fast as Target? I recall there being much discussion when Dayton Hudson became Target, i.e. the department store division was sold off, that the creative genius of the company – or more particularly its heritage – was leaving. But the issues here seem more technical in nature, which superficially might seem easier to fix than creating genius – you “just go out and hire good people” – but also expose the unhappy fact Target doesn’t seem special any more.

We often treat Target like it’s some kinder and gentler (and hipper) alternative to Walmart, but it really isn’t. Size-wise and increasingly performance-wise, it’s much closer to Sears…and that’s a comparison that has to hurt.

Brian Kelly
3 years 5 months ago

I’ve lived through a devolving major retail brand. And the loss of CEO leadership, The Gawker piece is from a “fire thrower” and therefore is meaningless. “Sticks and stones….”

However, Mr Jones reaction is further proof that the executive cadre is dysfunctional. Breaking ranks and espousing a “personal” opinion is not what an embattled leadership team needs.

I thought the deposed CIO behaved very independently and via a Bullseye video did not appear to align with Jones. And Tesija and Scheil seem off on their own. Rumors of Tesija and the CEO not talking were further proof.

When the fertilizer hits the ventilator, it’s time to ensure alignment, manage by walking around, and ramp up the internal communication. I think TGT should get some hometown advice from Mssr Joly on how to redeploy. Plus they ought to remember what John Pellegrin would do.

This is not an easy time. And of course in times like this we like to say, “retail ain’t for sissies.”

Lance Thornswood

As a former Target leader, I can only agree with the Gawker article’s criticisms. The low productivity and passive-aggressive “popularity contest” nature of the place ring especially true for me and my experience.

In many ways, when the initial elation of working for such a stellar brand wore off, I realized I’d essentially returned to high school again: the culture has become rife with cliques, backstabbing, “mean girls,” style before substance, and on and on. The energy wasted on these distractions is a major contributor to the low productivity cited by the author.

I have two words for Target as they look to reinvent themselves and claw their way back to relevancy: Michael Francis.

Mr. Francis, former CMO, was and is a brilliant brand visionary and amazing leader. That he was forced out was one of many errors in former CEO Steinhafel’s long list. Target would do well to bury the hatchet with Francis and bring him back as their top leader. If he’d have them, that is.

Lee Peterson

A lesson I learned working for a great retailer: if you don’t like it here, go work for someone else, like Walmart, and see how that works out for you. If you are a great brand, and Target is just that, there are plenty of good people waiting to take an angry employee’s place.

Although Jones absolutely did the right thing in terms of reading the complaint and understanding where they’re weak, being outwardly soft will get you less than simply telling the truth to disgruntled employees, which is this: Target is a LOT better than most retailers in terms of benefits, work conditions, pay and performance, and we’re going to be the best soon — bye bye.

Is it Zappos and Amazon that are now offering marginal employees $2000 to leave? Target should think about that approach. Perhaps, if they had more people that believed in their brand, they’d have an easier time getting back to great.

Naomi K. Shapiro
Naomi K. Shapiro
3 years 5 months ago

Jeff Weidauer is a man after my heart — at least his comments (above) are. If I were teaching PR 101, Mr. Jones would get an A+: He admits to and accepts that there are problems, doesn’t diss anyone, highlights the comments/problems, doesn’t try to evade or place blame, and now, hopefully, can pull everyone together and work on them. And what’s so bad about the public knowing what’s going on behind the curtain? It’s reality, and evinces understanding of the humanness at Target, as well as at any other retailer.

vic gallese
3 years 2 months ago

Two of the criticisms deal with creativity. It does seem that Target is driving with one foot on the brake at all times. While there is no need to panic, it would be best if Mr. Cornell can “empower” his team to take more risks and move faster on decisions. Ideas are in “test mode” for a loooooong time at Target, and sometimes die before being accepted for chain roll out.


Take Our Instant Poll

Who will react most positively to Jeff Jones’ response to public criticism of Target?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...