The lions’ den

They’re the high-profile jobs that, surely, no one in their right mind could want. But you’ll see a long queue of applicants whenever a vacancy comes up at an ailing giant – whether through a sense of adventure, hubris or plain greed, it seems marketers just can’t resist a challenge. By David Benady

It is hard to know whether to feel sorry for Coca-Cola’s new global marketing director Daniel Palumbo or jealous of him. Appointed as chief marketing officer last week from Eastman Kodak, Palumbo has been catapulted into the biggest marketing job in the world.

But it is a role which is notoriously difficult to fill. Palumbo is Coke’s third global marketing chief in about as many years and he will need to perform a minor miracle if he is to reinvigorate the soft drinks giant’s marketing.

Sales of the brown fizzy stuff have dipped in recent years, falling two per cent in the US last year and slowing worldwide. This is attributed in part to a general move away from carbonate consumption. Palumbo’s predecessors have paid the price for failing to resolve these issues with a concerted marketing drive.

Still, there are huge payoffs even for failure in such positions, so perhaps a little jealousy of Palumbo is justified. Even if he gets it wrong, he will probably never have to work again. Then again, if Palumbo succeeds, he will take his place in history as a man who helped to turn around one of the world’s great failing brands, and will probably get a stab at a chief executive’s job at Coke or elsewhere.

Marketers and advertising chiefs are frequently called upon to take up positions that appear at best precarious. Last week, Marketing Week reported that DaimlerChrysler UK president Joachim Eberhardt had been plucked from his post to run Chrysler’s troubled sales and marketing operation in the US. He is replacing Jim Shroer, who suddenly resigned a week earlier.

Also much in the news at the moment is former food marketer David Hearn, who last year took up the role of chief executive at troubled Bates Worldwide. Within months, he was appointed boss of the advertising network’s owner, Cordiant Communications, whose sale he is now overseeing following the loss of major pieces of business. On joining Bates, Hearn denied that his job was to turn the company into a saleable concern and walk away with a big payoff. “I’m here for the duration and will take my chances like everyone else,” he told Marketing Week (MW March 28, 2002). He stands to reap a payoff equivalent to 18 months’ salary once he sells it, according to newspaper reports.

Many in the industry are wondering which marketer will take up the challenge of 3, the mobile phone company that has failed to make much of a dent in the UK so far and is losing founding marketing director Lisa Gernon (MW May 15).

It can’t possibly go wrong

But according to some who have been lured to “basket case” roles, a new appointee does not go into their post thinking about big payoffs for failure simply because, as marketers, they cannot believe they will fail.

“Marketing and advertising people are optimistic by nature,” says one time basket-caser Charles Kirchner, who lasted just six months in the notoriously shaky role of Mirror Group marketing director. “They tend to have quite a high opinion of themselves – often too high – and that is what makes marketers good at their jobs, though they do get it wrong quite a lot.”

There is rarely much doubt in marketers’ minds over taking up these dangerous jobs, even if they are following a long line of executives who have been sacked. Ellis Watson, for instance, former marketing director of The Sun, has just taken up the newly created role of general manager at Mirror Group Newspapers – which includes the marketing remit – in the full knowledge that previous marketing boss Alisdair Luxmoore was axed after little more than 18 months (MW April 23) and others have lasted even less time. Neither Watson nor Luxmoore were available for comment as Marketing Week went to press.

“If you are an ambitious marketer and you get the opportunity to head a great brand, you will persuade yourself that your predecessors were idiots and that here is a chance to make yourself famous forever,” says Kirchner.

Kirchner says he took the Mirror job because he thought he could apply disciplines learned in packaged goods to newspaper marketing, although he admits that Mirror Group was a “very generous employer” and that there was “a degree of danger money” on offer, which played a part in his decision. He now heads his own company, Marketing Supply Chain International.

The self-belief exhibited by advertising and marketing people is both refreshing and astounding. Grey Worldwide London has been through a succession of chief executives in recent years, most of whom haven’t lasted long and have failed to remedy the company’s lacklustre performance. Present incumbent Garry Lace, who was poached from TBWA last October, says: “If a company seems to go through people quickly, that says more about the company culture than the people. The fact that Grey has had a lot of people doing this job says more about Grey than it does about the chief executives.” Lace believes that by putting him in charge, the company has shown that it has finally come to its senses.

A marketer with a mission

One man with an interesting angle on why he took up a seemingly thankless job is MG Rover sales and marketing director John Sanders, who joined the troubled car maker as marketing director in 1998, when it was still owned by BMW and was referred to in the German press as “the English Patient”.

Sanders, at the time deputy managing director of below-the-line agency Broadway, says he joined Rover partly out of a sense of public good. “The indigenous car manufacturing industry is always at risk in this country. If it declines further, jobs will be at risk. That helps you get up on a Monday morning,” he says.

He adds that people who take a risk by going into a difficult job should be praised rather than reviled. “There is a lot to say for putting oneself out there and taking a risk,” he says. “I would never judge adversely someone who came to me with a CV that showed they had tried and failed.”

A voice of warning, though, comes from headhunter James Brocket, managing director of executive search agency Calibre One, which specialises in placing marketers in technology businesses. He believes that having a bad mark against their name can work against mainstream marketers. “You’re starting at a disadvantage if you have made a bad career move. You don’t get many chances in marketing and nowadays people are taking much more care, doing research on people before hiring them.” This can include talking to former team members about marketers’ strong and weak points. “If those discussions are negative, the company won’t hire,” he says.

Marketers are well advised to think twice before jumping at the chance to sip from a poisoned chalice, though that depends on just how diamond-encrusted the chalice is. Clearly few people would turn down the job of chief marketing officer at Coca-Cola. But for lesser roles, extreme caution is necessary.

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