Carrying the can

Carrying the responsibility for a marketing disaster needn’t be the end of a marketer’s career, indeed experience of a crisis can help when looking for another job. All the same, struggling companies are quick to blame marketing when something goes wrong, says David Benady

Marketers have an amazing ability to rise phoenix-like from the ashes of disasters. While the executives in question may or may not bear responsibility for these catastrophes, having a skeleton or two rattling in the cupboard is no impediment to future success. Persuading a new (or present) employer that past calamities were the fault of market conditions, the sales director, unforeseen shifts in social trends or plain bad luck is all part and parcel of career enhancement for the ambitious marketer.

Only last week, bike brand Harley-Davidson announced it was hiring Paul Stroud, the former European marketing chief of collapsed car manufacturer MG Rover, as its UK managing director (MW last week). His association with the Rover disaster has proved to be no brake on his career, and he is now heading a brand that has increased sales for each of the past seven years. Just what he told the interview panel about his part in Rover’s downfall is anyone’s guess, but as a skilled practitioner in the art of personal branding, Stroud no doubt had his answers well prepared. He was unavailable for comment as Marketing Week went to press.

Bouncing back

With a shortage of senior talent plaguing the industry, brand owners are only too ready to overlook marketers’ associations with hitches and faux pas. Another example is KFC marketing director of five years Claire Harrison-Church, who left last month without a job to go to. The real reasons for her departure may never be made public, though industry insiders claim the US head office baulked at ads she commissioned (MW October 20). Despite this, Church is understood to be on the point of clinching an even more prestigious role with one of Britain’s biggest brands.

Then there is the case of Andrew Harrison, who left his job as marketing director of Nestlé Rowntree to become managing director of Müller Dairy. After he left Nestlé, new managing director Chris White publicly criticised Harrison’s advertising for not ensuring sales. Harrison left Müller earlier this summer, just 18 months after joining, but there are some who believe he will secure another top post soon.

Who ruined abbey?

Meanwhile, in financial services, Abbey marketing chief Angus Porter oversaw a relaunch of the bank that was panned by rivals in the financial and branding sectors. But this did not prevent him from later taking the global chief executive’s role at consultancy The Added Value Group (MW September 8). And don’t forget Niall Fitzgerald, who was head of detergents at Unilever during the costly and embarrassing Persil Power debacle. This didn’t stop him rising to become chairman of the company. Likewise, involvement with the ITV Digital fiasco was no impediment to marketing chief Jeremy Dale switching to become marketing director at In fact, having experience at a struggling company can be a boon to a marketer’s career, as it may offer them insights into the crises that brands can face. Martin Runnacles, former head of marketing at BMW (GB), moved with the company to the now defunct Rover Group as marketing director. He went on to become global marketing director at Ford-owned Jaguar, another troubled car marque.

Runnacles says his experience at Rover helped in securing his position at Jaguar: “Far from there being any stigma attached to working at Rover when BMW was pulling out, I sensed that people felt there was real value in having managed in adversity.” He says that at Rover, major cuts in headcount and costs were necessary and adds: “I learned a lot about managing through people to get the job done. It was a young management team and trust was critical. That experience stays with you.”

A recipe for disaster

But even when a marketer is directly to blame for a disaster, they can make a comeback. Sergio Zyman did just that. In the 1980s, as marketing chief of Coca-Cola, Zyman spent years pushing the conservative company to ditch its traditional recipe and replace it with a new, sweeter version. He eventually persuaded the Atlanta-based company to introduce the more sugary New Coke in 1986, but it was rejected by consumers, who poured it down the drain and campaigned to have their old Coke back. The company buckled under the pressure and less than three months later, following what is acknowledged as the greatest marketing disaster in history, it canned the relaunch and re-introduced classic Coke.

Zyman left the company shortly after the disaster, but Coke boss Robert Goizueta brought him back as marketing director in 1994. Over the next four years, he was credited with turning around Coke’s marketing and building its sales. The sheer boldness of the New Coke move marked Zyman out as a maverick who was not afraid to take radical action.

But in truth there are not many examples where disasters can be blamed directly on one individual. Paul Cousins, a director of consultancy Catalyst Marketing, says it is in the nature of the marketers’ role that they carry the can for collective errors. Finance directors tend to protect managing directors. Senior executives are cautious about sacking sales directors, given their contacts with key clients. Expel a production chief and you may find the whole manufacturing process goes down the pan. But Cousins believes most companies think marketers will not be missed if they are fired.

“Big decisions in companies aren’t made by single individuals,” says Cousins. “The board has a collective responsibility, but it is easier to point the finger at the marketing director, who is often the most outspoken executive. As a marketer, you don’t have any clear responsibility. What you have is a bigger budget.

Are marketers bulletproof?

“If you are a good marketer, when you get to your next job interview, you will be able to explain that and come out smelling of roses.” He believes marketers are sometimes treated unfairly, particularly in the trade press, which appears to jump at the chance to make executives scapegoats for failure.

But in the world of business, there is a realisation that there are so few people who are capable of handling senior roles that their mistakes are overlooked, or at least embraced as part of the learning process. Beattie McGuinness Bungay partner Andrew McGuinness says: “There aren’t that many really talented individuals, and they make errors just like everyone else. You can’t write off everyone who has made a mistake before or you end up with a thin pack of cards.”

Mediocrity is the greatest risk facing businesses today and brand owners must reward risk-taking. Even if it does sometimes end in disaster.â¢

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