An outside influence

The brewer Adnams’ appointment of M&S’s marketing chief as a non-executive director has spotlighted the number of marketers holding such advisory positions. Is there still an old-boys’ club and are marketers suitably qualified to take on the responsibility? asks Sonoo Singh

It seems that everyone wants a piece of the Marks & Spencer success story so it is easy to understand why brewer Adnams, trading in the tough beer market, has appointed M&S’ marketing chief Steven Sharp to its board as a non-executive director (NED) (MW last week).

But the move raises the question of what marketers who take non-executive directorships bring to the table – or the board. The beer market has been in freefall since 2001, and growth in that sector does not come easily, so the appointment of Sharp, who has played a major part in the resurgence of M&S in a tough retail environment, is something of a coup for Adnams.

It would seem that the principle of appointing a well-known executive as NED to offer a sound independent perspective is a sensible one, but external directorships in corporate Britain have long been mistrusted by sceptics. The reality of an old boys’ network, meeting once a month in the boardroom followed by a good lunch, is not exactly a distant memory.

No more Old boys’ club
However, the Combined Code on Corporate Governance, introduced in 2003, sets a benchmark of best practice for companies and Professor Paul Palmer, deputy director of Cass Centre for Corporate Governance at Cass Business School, says: “With the corporate governance revolution the world has changed dramatically and the process of appointing NEDs is very transparent and rigorous.” He adds that with the new governance rules the value of the NEDs has rocketed because their expertise not only supports the management team but also provides “balance and checks on the executive directors”.

Chime Communications chairman Sue Farr agrees that NEDs are no longer “collected” on a golf course and says the recruitment process has become much more open and professional. “Most searches involve a headhunter and in some cases even lengthy psychometric tests,” she adds. Farr has been on the board of retailer New Look in the past and has just been appointed as a trustee of the Historic Royal Palaces. She argues that with a remit to represent the interests of all shareholders, and with the power to challenge strategic decisions, NEDs can add huge value to a company.

Founding partner of advertising agency Beattie McGuinness Bungay Andrew McGuinness, who has been on the board of Chorion, the company that owns the rights to the Noddy, Mr Men and Agatha Christie characters, adds: “It is a bit of a misconception that non-execs are easy money.”

He warns that the role of NED comes with “significant” responsibilities and is far from being an easy ride, especially if a company experiences a rough patch or becomes a takeover target. During his time at Chorion, the company went through a management buy-out.

Are marketers the right choice?
Armed with experience from varying backgrounds and sectors, NEDs maintain that they help bring broader perspective to management thinking. But some question whether marketers have the skills to review audit and remuneration committees or scrutinise management decisions.

However, Mike Moran, former commercial director of Toyota GB, believes most marketers, especially from large organisations, have been exposed to commercial issues and possess solid track records that help to develop businesses.

Moran is, however, somewhat dismissive of advertising executives sitting on boards of companies and says: “Some advertising people can have fairly narrow experience of the business world, but then NEDs might just make them more useful because it will expose them to the real world issues.” Moran now runs marketing consultancy The Orchard Consultancy and sits on the board of seafood business Isle of Shuna.

But McGuinness takes a contrary view. He thinks that if there is one business that prepares people to be non-executive it is advertising. “It is true that though I was running Omnicom-owned TBWA, part of a listed company, as an agency we were not as exposed to City pressures as I was during my time at Chorion. But we see all kinds of business issues and with a range of different clients we get a huge insight into those sectors. After all, we are in the business of building brands.”

NEDs, in most cases, serve as a sounding board for the management, which is the reason the role attracts such a range of skills, according to one source on the client-side. The source, also a former advertising executive, adds that advertising expertise should be a help, rather than a hindrance, when it comes to non-executive directorships. “Both advertising and marketing skills are hugely in demand from companies looking for an all-round business and people skill.”

To sceptics, this could also mean that the availability of NEDs will be limited to a small talent pool, as there will always be resistance towards appointing someone unfamiliar with the ways of the corporate world. “It involves dealing with everything from company performance to market fluctuation to pension problems and this is not always easy or sometimes even very interesting,” says one NED.

“It is not that easy,” agrees Moran, who is “actively” looking for more non-executive positions and adds that the incestuous practice of appointing from the executive gentlemen’s club still exists in the City.

Both sides profit
It is, of course, not only in the interests of companies looking for advice and support to seek out people like Moran to help them build their businesses, but also in the interests of executives to try “new and different” ventures. But some argue that life away from the public gaze of shareholders is preferable.

Both Farr and Moran disagree and praise the mental stimulation that non-executive roles provide. “It gives me a chance to go plural and also pursue my interests,” says Moran. Farr adds that NEDs provide her with challenges and a “”window to someone else’s world”.

There was a time when non-executive roles were largely the domain of the retired, and executives seen as past their prime. But boards are starting to think more creatively and are seeking people who will help increase their shareholder value. Investors will be less than surprised if Steven Sharp makes a few more appearances in FTSE boardrooms in the future.

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