Victory fanfare – or the last post?

What makes a marketer take on the top job at what, to the outside world, is so obviously a basket case? Money, for sure. But it’s not that simple: against high financial gain must be set unbelievably long hours, chronic high stress levels, and the strong possibility of an ignominious blot on the curriculum vitae.

Such considerations will surely have been going through the mind of Eastman Kodak’s Dan Palumbo when he signed up as as chief marketing officer of Coca-Cola last week. While Coke may not be a basket case, it is certainly a brand in trouble – and Palumbo has catapulted himself into the equivalent of Siege Perilous and a high-profile quest for the holy grail of corporate salvation.

There are plenty of other examples about, too: DaimlerChrysler’s promotion of Joachim Eberhardt to the top sales and marketing position at troubled Chrysler, for instance; while over at Mirror Group, the ever-ebullient Ellis Watson has grasped the poisoned chalice with both hands.

Strangest by far, however, is the unfolding saga of David Hearn’s stewardship of Cordiant. A strong dose of cynicism has flavoured recent assessments of Hearn’s motives, now that it has emerged he may pocket a 1.5m ‘failure fee’ – meaning that he successfully sells the company rather than keeps it afloat. Yet the golden parachute seems to be of recent manufacture, and may simply reflect the need to make a financial virtue out of increasing necessity. The company’s independence is doomed.

That need not necessarily have seemed the case when he took the job. It may be more than a coincidence that Hearn is the second ex-food client to be hired as a company doctor. Remember preppy Kraft marketer Bob Seelert? Perhaps a certain cheerful naivety is no bad thing in these situations. Neither Seelert nor Hearn had previously worked on the agency side – though Hearn is no stranger to risk, as his six-year stint at troubled food company Goodman Fielder demonstrates.

Perhaps Hearn really began – with messianic self-delusion (he would not be the first marketer to think like that) – by believing that he alone had the skills, energy and stamina to pull off a mission impossible. Later, he may have calculated (probably correctly) that others will be blamed for the serial mismanagement of Cordiant and that his own reputation as a company doctor will suffer no lasting damage.

A similar mystery surrounds Lisa Gernon’s decision to risk her reputation, earned at Orange, by fronting the marketing of Hutchison Whampoa’s 3 brand. While being a first mover can have its advantages in new markets, the odds were always stacked against Hutchison’s pioneering foray into 3G. Neither the network nor the public seemed ready for the launch, and when it came, the results were duly disappointing. Calls mysteriously dropped, the handsets looked old-fashioned and clumsy, battery life was inadequate. Of course, none of this was Gernon’s fault, though she might be fairly criticised for positioning the product for the mass market when it was actually more appealing (not least on account of its pricing) to early adopters. All the same, she could surely have spotted disaster looming.

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