by Sabrina Forbes. Mike Middleton, ex-KFC CMO, has joined the leadership team for Liquid, WPP’s new bespoke agency for Distell, alongside Paul Jackson (CEO) and Fran Luckin (CCO). At the time of writing, Middleton had been managing director for just five days.

When the WPP team were putting the Distell pitch together, Jackson, the CEO of Grey South Africa, contacted Middleton for some advice and, after winning the account for seven major Distell brands, offered the role of running Liquid to him.

“Great opportunity”

Distell logo“I thought it was a great opportunity. It’s not more of the same so it’s not another CMO role. It’s working for an exciting client like Distell that’s got amazing brands but also looking at it from an agency perspective and getting that agency knowledge and know how. It helps that Distell is based in Stellenbosch — I study through Stellenbosch — so the whole thing came together quite nicely in the sense that I can continue my studies, I can work on amazing brands with Distell, and I can get agency experience which is exactly what I needed. Otherwise, I would have carried on life doing more of the same until nobody wanted me anymore,” says Middleton.

The agency is a dedicated WPP agency created just for the producer and marketer of spirits, fine wines, ciders and ready-to-drinks, based on the win and in line with the company’s greater strategy to grow its presence not only in SA and Africa but further afield. In light of this, Distell wants, and needs, an agency network that’s able to operate beyond just SA. WPP offers the opportunity to ensure alignment of Distell’s brands as they expand into multiple geographies. This is especially important as introducing and establishing brands into new markets becomes increasingly difficult without consistency.

There are currently 107 people who will be working on the Distell portfolio, some full-time at Liquid and others from agencies within the WPP network.

Career history

Middleton’s career history spans multiple categories including ice cream, household cleaning, beer, chocolate, coffee, biscuits and, most recently, quick service restaurants where, for three years, he worked as CMO Africa for Yum! Restaurants International, leaving the brand in December 2017.

He’s spent the last year studying philosophy and future studies in Stellenbosch University, explaining that he needed a break from the industry to reeducate himself and figure out how he wanted to tackle the industry going forward. His return to the market found him uncertain on whether another CMO role would challenge him enough to stay and, with creativity as his first love, he knew whatever role he took on would have to include it in some shape or form.

“You don’t grow as a person if you don’t push yourself out of your comfort zone and try new and different things. One of the challenges I had in taking a general management role in an FMCG organisation was the fact that creativity, and the heart of what I love, would not have been part of what I do anymore,” he explains.

Hands-on role

Middleton’s role as MD is set to be very hands-on: he will be spending half his time in Johannesburg with the creative team and the other half in Stellenbosch with the client and client-service teams. This will enable him to marry strategic creativity and business solutions together.

When asked on trends facing the industry has a whole, he believes that the creative industry is stuck in an old model and rhythm, and that it’s the fault of both client and agency. According to Middleton, we treat brands too perfectly and are afraid to execute anything that’s not completely in line with the brand’s positioning: “The reality of the world and where it’s going is that you’ve got to be far more in the moment and part of current conversations and you’ve got to allow your brand to have a bit of flexibility with the space,” he says.

The same trend is being played out in the consumer space. People don’t buy perfection anymore, because nothing is perfect. Herein lies the opportunity for brands to show their realness and to have a real viewpoint on what’s happening around them in order to connect better with consumers. Most marketers are, unfortunately, reluctant to let go of the reins on their brands and be part of daily conversations.

Winning brands

“I think the brands that are going to win going forward are going to be the ones who are using big data but in the right way — using big data to tell them what conversations are happening in their categories and on their brands, and then allowing their brands to have a viewpoint on those conversations,” he believes. Presenting your brand in a perfectly crafted way is an outdated method of communication; it’s too formulaic. People are going to talk about you, no matter what; it’s how you get into the conversation that matters.

Middleton suggests we look at what marketing was like in the olden days and try to go back to that one-on-one way of communication before TV, radio, and outdoor. He believes these platforms have made marketers lazy by giving an easy way out of throwing a strategy together, telling consumers whatever message you want and plastering that message on every platform you can.

“Big media these days and a push strategy [don’t] work anymore. Consumers want to engage with your brand on their terms, so you’ve got to have a strategy where they pull the brand into them, rather than you pushing the brand onto them. Brands that are prepared to let themselves go a little bit, and personalise themselves, and have viewpoints on what’s happening around them and not always trying to be perfect but be real instead, I think those are the brands that are going to win going forward,” he says, mentioning Nando’s as a brand he believes is doing it right, in the moment.

“Very brave”

While the win is still fresh and we’re yet to see work come from Liquid on Distell’s top-tier brands, Middleton shares that he’s enjoyed his first week so far and is looking forward to this new challenge. “I must admit I am loving being on the agency side. I think that Distell is a lovely client. They have amazing brands and do amazing things with their brands. It’s really exciting setting up an agency from scratch. It’s a bespoke agency for Distell and I think going from zero to hero is really exciting. I think that they are very brave in doing what they’ve done, because they’ve had many creative partners and they’ve restructured their entire business… bringing it all together under one umbrella and saying, ‘We want to do things differently, we want to do things better, and we want harmony and alignment in all that we do,’” he says.

See also


Sabrina Forbes“#Agency/BrandFocus” is an ongoing weekly series updating the market on ad agency performance, including business performance, innovation, initiatives, the work, awards and people.

Sabrina Forbes (IG) is an experienced writer covering the food, health, lifestyle, beverage, marketing and media industries. She runs her own full-stack web/app development and digital-first content creation company. For more, go to She is a contributing writer to

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