Exclusive: Uber Poaches Senior Target Exec
Uber, the global ride-hailing giant whose reputation has see-sawed at times from brash to boorish, has plucked an image maker from a leading U.S. retailer to be one of its top executives.
Jones, 48, has helped rejuvenate Minneapolis-based Target under its relatively new CEO, Brian Cornell, though he joins a recent parade of departures from Target’s top ranks. Jones starts Sept. 19 at Uber, where he will head worldwide marketing and operations. He replaces board member and early employee Ryan Graves in those roles, though Graves remains in a senior capacity at Uber.
Travis Kalanick, Uber’s CEO, says the company has sought to “fuse” its marketing efforts with its on-the-ground operations and also to find an executive with a “strong storytelling ethos” and the experience of managing a global brand. “We haven’t had a deep marketing expertise in house,” Kalanick said in an interview with Fortune in San Francisco on Monday. He referred to Uber’s ride-sharing service as a $20-billion entity—referring to approximate global bookings on an annualized basis—that represents “essentially 99% of Uber’s business.”
The two declined to say specifically how Jones planned to change Uber’s marketing efforts, which to date have relied heavily on basic techniques such as emails, texts, promotional discounts, and event sponsorships. “How to bring a global brand to local flavors will be the interesting challenge,” said Kalanick. “I don’t know if anyone has done it quite the way we need to.”
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Kalanick and Jones first met in February at the TED conference in Vancouver, where Jones had requested a meeting to discuss the possibility of becoming an Uber board member. Jones said he responded critically when Kalanick asked his opinion of a keynote speech he had given minutes earlier at the influential conference. “I said, ‘It’s the first time I’ve seen you speak live, but I’d give you a B-minus,'” recalled Jones, who told Kalanick he thought Uber should focus more on its positive attributes and less on the evils of regulations, one of Kalanick’s signature topics. “I told him, ‘Great brands stand for something, not against something. The TED crowd should have heard what’s possible with transportation.'”
Jones said over the subsequent six months he and Kalanick, who is 40, have spent a total of 65 hours together, discussing the possibilities of tying together Uber’s operations with its messaging. In addition to operations and marketing, Jones will be responsible for customer support.
The shift for Graves, 33, is the second time in Uber’s six-year history that he has given up key responsibilities. In 2010, he relinquished the CEO position to Kalanick, a co-founder who initially chose not to work full time with the company. Graves went on to oversee Uber’s launch process around the world. He told Fortune that he views the opportunity to hire Jones as the right move for the company. Graves will continue to serve as Uber’s top executive for human resources as well as UberEverything, a collection of nascent businesses that includes UberEats, a prepared-food delivery service.
Uber has had a mixed record hiring mid-career talent. f500link]Microsoft[/hotlink] (MSFT) and Google (GOOGL) veteran Brent Callinicos had a relatively short tenure as the company’s chief financial officer, as did David Plouffe, the former Obama campaign chief who headed Uber’s communications and policy initiatives and currently serves as an Uber board member and advisor. Top-level recruits that have stuck include chief technologist Thuan Pham, who joined from VMware (VMW); Joe Sullivan, head of security, who previously was at Facebook (FB); and Rachel Whetstone, who left Google to replace Plouffe.
Jones’ departure comes at a difficult juncture for Target. The discount retailer recently reported a 1.1% drop in comparable sales for the second quarter, the first such decline since 2014. It faces a number of challenges, including slowed e-commerce growth. The company is facing consumer boycotts over an April decision to allow transgender customers and employees to use the bathroom of their choice. And Target’s efforts to reinvigorate its $15-billion-a-year grocery business has so far failed to lift sales.
For more about Target sales and predictions about this holiday season, watch:
Jones, who joined Target in 2012 after earlier stints at the advertising agency McKinney and retailer Gap Inc (GPS), is just one the latest in a string of c-suite departures since Cornell took over as CEO two years ago. In the last 18 months alone, Target has replaced its chief merchant, chief stores officer, chief information officer, chief financial officer, and general counsel. It also has created a chief operating officer position. These changes have come as rivals like Walmart (WMT) and Amazon (AMZN) are aggressively going after many of the same customers.
Jones, has been credited with many of Target’s innovative ad campaigns and was a key architect of its turnaround plan in 2014 as it recovered from a data breach and a failed Canadian expansion. The marketing efforts included sponsoring a four-minute live performance by rock group Imagine Dragons during the 2015 Grammys, eschewing traditional 30-second TV spots.
For this year’s Grammys, Target tried to top itself with a four-minute commercial-slash-rock video by Gwen Stefani, complete with set and costume changes, but only very subtle references to its stores. Analysts have credited Target’s marketing for bringing back the sense of fun it enjoyed in its heyday, which had been a key differentiator with rival Walmart.
In a statement praising Jones, Cornell also sought to reassure investors about Target’s prospects heading into the busiest time of the year for the retailer, saying, “Target’s marketing team is world class and we are well positioned headed into the important holiday season.”