Breaking down national barriers

There was something metaphorically appropriate about the first conference for European marketers being held at sea – just off the Dutch coast in fact, in an Italian ship, last week. “All at sea” and “choppy waters” would be putting it too strongly; but there is certainly a lack of collective identity within this increasingly important management cadre – which the organiser, Richmond Events, bravely strove to remedy.

For marketers, national boundaries are no longer a natural definition of their ambitions. Politically and economically, the power of the nation state is visibly yielding to supranational structures. It is natural to suppose, therefore, that careerist marketers would, in their own way, embrace these changes and gravitate towards a super-club of European management. Yet, while the commercial trend towards pan-Europeanism certainly exists, evidence of growing “clubbiness” is much more elusive.

Differing legal structures, language difficulties (less important than may be supposed) and the distances to be travelled are no doubt part of the explanation for this. But a fuller, more interesting insight is provided by some original research conducted by McKinsey for the European Marketing Forum among senior pan-European marketers and HR executives.

The picture which emerges should give those about to step on the European career ladder some pause for thought. Far from the legendary prerogative of the harlot, European marketers have all the responsibility and very little of the power. They appear caught in the middle, mediating between head office and country-level execution. The position is made worse by the fact that marketing expertise and sophistication varies widely in the geographical areas over which they hold nominal sway.

In the opinion of former adman William Eccleshare, now a McKinsey partner, the skills required to excel in such a role have very little to do with pure marketing expertise. Rather, they depend on a blend of political astuteness, a gendarme-like obsession with uniform brand execution and an evangelical passion for preaching best practice.

Certainly anecdotal evidence from the conference backed this impression of a harassed individual struggling to achieve focused identity. Speaker Carl WÃ¥reus, European emissary of the world’s most powerful retail brand, McDonald’s, left us in little doubt about the difficulty of reconciling the disparate demands of so many European franchises. While Jean-Noël Kapferer, professor of marketing at the Paris-based HEC, offered some compelling insights into why doughty local European brands are leading a fight-back against globalising tendencies: wonderful news for national marketers; a nightmare for their pan-European bosses.

All the same, there is little doubt about the outcome. Centralised or decentralised, all the big brand-led companies have a huge vested interest in breaking down national barriers and bringing conformity to the European market. Witness Unilever chairman Niall FitzGerald’s championing of the euro on behalf of the business leaders’ group of Britain in Europe. Pan-European marketers will eventually have their day; but that day is not yet.

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