How to get ahead of marketing

We all know that successful marketers can gain a place on a company board, perhaps taking on the role of chief executive, but what is their secret?

A new year, a new job, a new set of skills. These thoughts inevitably come to mind for those intent on getting ahead in marketing and stepping up the career ladder ultimately to run a business.

But what do you have to do to become the next chief executive of J Sainsbury, a post currently held by Sir Peter Davis, who before his days as group chief executive at Prudential oversaw marketing at the supermarket giant in his role as assistant managing director? His opposite number at Tesco, Terry Leahy, was the supermarket’s first board-level marketing director before getting the top job. Outside retail, Eric Nicoli rose through the ranks at United Biscuits from the position of senior marketing controller to become group chief executive, before breaking away to join EMI as chairman in 1999. Then there is John Sunderland who worked his way up through the ranks with some time spent in marketing to become group chief executive of Cadbury Schweppes in 1996.

“Push for it and be prepared to move sideways,” is Sunderland’s advice to marketers hoping to emulate his ascent into the upper echelons of management. “And, don’t leave it too late – it gets harder.”

Sunderland suggests that there are better opportunities for marketers to break into general management in companies that are built around big brands.

It is these kind of companies that tend to offer early board-level exposure.

COI Communications chief executive Carol Fisher, who started her marketing career at Reckitt & Colman (now part of Reckitt Benckiser) before moving to RHM Foods, says: “I found myself at a young age, in my late 20s, going to board meetings for things like new product development projects. If you were a finance person or sales person you would not get that level of access to very senior people.”

Fisher went on to become international marketing director at Courage and then ran a business as managing director of the radio sales arm of media owner CLT (now CLT-Ufa) before joining COI in 1999.

Marketers may get exposure to senior management early on in their career, but that does not necessarily mean there is someone actually responsible for marketing sitting on the board.

A survey commissioned by CIA and KPMG in 2000, revealed that only one in five UK companies had a marketing director on the main board.

A separate survey conducted last year showed that only 13 of the top FTSE-100 companies had a chief executive with a marketing background compared with 26 who had a financial background. In a separate survey of FTSE-100 companies’ chief executives conducted in October 2001, 27 had accountancy qualifications compared with 15 who were broadly described as marketers.

Marketing Society director-general Claire Watson says: “I think many marketing people don’t necessarily have the breadth of skills to move on. You have to have people skills, understand finance and get your head around IT and production issues. It’s often finance people who end up running the business. There’s a hypothesis that many marketing people are not taken seriously because finance is considered to be an exact science and marketing is more of an art form. Measurement is a key issue.”

Little respect for the profession

Fisher, who now manages a team of 400 people at COI, says: “Many companies would benefit by having more senior marketers on their boards. I don’t think marketing gets the same level of respect as accountancy and the legal profession. Maybe this is because everybody has an opinion about marketing and think they know about it, but it is up to us to professionalise the marketer’s role and show businesses that marketing is a skill.”

Martin Glenn, who was appointed president of Walkers Snacks in September 1998 after holding the position of Frito-Lay Europe marketing vice-president, says: “While marketing is not a new skill, it is certainly not as well established as the role of bean counter.” He adds the discipline has lacked status because of boards’ inability to understand the effectiveness of the marketing function.

TXU Europe president of European retail business Roger Partington started as a marketer on the Unilever management development scheme and progressed to marketing director at Nestlé and then Safeway before joining the energy provider. He warns: “If you are only finance-focused, you just look at one year’s profit and loss. Marketing gives an insight into the sustainability of profits if you believe you are meeting customers’ needs, it is what the business is there to do.”

A rising star at Sainsbury’s, Sara Weller – who joined in 1999 as marketing director from Abbey National and has been promoted to assistant managing director of Sainsbury’s Supermarkets – agrees: “If you are a marketer, you understand that businesses are all about meeting customer needs and profitably – so marketing is very central to the way businesses are run.”

But it takes a lot more than superb marketing skills to get that top job.

Carlsberg-Tetley head of marketing and take-home sales Doug Clydesdale has just made it to the next level as managing director for brands and sales (MW December 20, 2001). He says: “Those marketers who move on are the ones who have more commercial skills, are pragmatic and have a good awareness of how to develop the business, customer awareness, financial awareness and so on.”

High-flyer Philip Jansen, the 34-year-old managing director of Telewest Broadband’s consumer division, has wanted to run a business even before his university days and deliberately set about acquiring experience in purchasing, logistics, research and development, and marketing. He was recently linked in newspaper reports to the role of chief executive of BT, left vacant by Sir Peter Bonfield and filled last month by Ben Verwaayan.

Now managing 7,500 people and a turnover of &£900m, Jansen admits that his career benefited from intensive training at Procter & Gamble, and deal-making experience as group marketing director at Dunlop Slazenger Worldwide, before arriving at Telewest as group marketing director in 1999.

He says: “I put a lot down to P&G where they look at marketing from a perspective of delivering for the consumer and developing a return for shareholders. Making television ads is not the best grounding for managing a financially driven business.”

The importance of training

Like Jansen at P&G, Sue Farr – former director of public service marketing at the BBC and now managing director of Golin/Harris International for the Europe, Middle East and Africa region – also recommends working for an organisation that takes training seriously.

While at the BBC, Farr was sent on a finance course for senior managers at the London Business School and also had access to a personal coach who helped her draw up a training programme that built on her strengths and weaknesses. She says it is essential to understand a balance sheet and profit-and-loss accounts in order to make it to the top of a business.

Experienced colleagues are also a bonus according to Weller: “The most important thing is to pick a good company where you will be surrounded by people who know what they are doing so that you can learn from them.”

Learning from one’s peers

Apart from training, both Farr and Jansen advocate tapping into the knowledge base of senior peers in other organisations in order to gather tips on management and business organisation.

For Farr, that has meant being a non-executive director of New Look and putting herself forward for industry service roles such as chairman of the Marketing Society, while Jansen is involved in bodies such as the CBI and the Institute of Directors.

Mike Moran, who has worked in sales and marketing in the car industry since 1982 and was promoted to commercial director at Toyota UK from the position of marketing director in 1999, advises: “If people want to end up running a company, they should expand their disciplines. No one has had a career with just one company. You need to have two or three varied jobs at five or so companies if you want to get to the top, you need that level of experience.”

However, some skills can be acquired through marketing.

Walkers’ Glenn says that the discipline has given him the ability to define what the business should be doing in order to appeal to consumers and he praises the way it hones general communication skills. He adds: “If you look at most theories on leadership, communication is a very important skill.”

Farr, who spent part of her career working for WCRS and Collett Dickenson Pearce, claims that her account management skills are “valuable” and help her to motivate people, present new ideas and react to change.

Whatever the level of preparation for that top job, a former marketing director at Woolworths and Signet, Dianne Thompson, who was promoted to chief executive of Camelot from commercial operations director in 1999, warns: “Moving up from being head of a function to being a general manager is a difficult transition to make.

“This is because you can be trained in a specialist area but there is no easy way to learn how to become a general manager. As a marketer you need to know your own marketing budget but you don’t understand the big picture. There are also areas, such as human resources, where skills and knowledge must be far broader.”

As Thompson says, it is not all plain sailing once you are running the show. The key discipline is to remain focused on business objectives and not get distracted by side issues.

Abbey National Group business banking director Gary Hockey-Morley, who made the jump into management in May this year from his role as retail marketing director, admits it was not an easy move to make.

“There are politics to deal with as a manager,” he says. “As a marketer you’re spending a lot of time looking at consumers. As management, you have to deal with internal bureaucracy. But my role is to concentrate on the customer.”

Part of the trick of management, says Jansen, is to recruit a top team that can be relied on to run their particular discipline, as there is not enough time to take a hands-on role across each aspect of the business including marketing.

He says: “It’s important to take great care in recognising what’s important and what’s not because the stakes are much higher.”

Those marketers who have ambitions to run a FTSE-100 company could do worse than follow Farr’s advice: “Never end the year where your experience looks the same as the previous year – always have a tick in the box.”

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