Downturn may help marketers climb all the way to the top


Bacardi’s appointment last week of Colgate-Palmolive executive vice-president Seamus McBride as chief executive stands as an example of a marketer who has made it to the top job ( August 4).

Despite the drive to grow business, only a handful of UK marketers reach the chief executive role. Many firms promote finance directors over marketers, believing a leader with a financial background may be better accepted in both the boardroom and the City.

McBride’s career at Colgate-Palmolive began in 1979, but he left in 1994 for brewer Bass, where he was marketing director for four years before returning to Colgate-Palmolive in 1998. Before the Bacardi appointment, he was executive vice president and president of the company’s North American and worldwide effectiveness.

Strategic importance

Mark Brewerton, managing director of marketing consultancy Total Marketing Solutions, says: “Marketing as a discipline has not won its place in the boardroom in the UK. We need to show its strategic value.”

According to one source, an estimated 80% of UK chiefs have a finance background, whereas in the US marketers have a much better chance at the top job.

Many suspect the problem is a reluctance in boardrooms to accept marketing as a discipline that will be taken as seriously as a financial background.

But many feel the benefits of a marketing background should not be overlooked. In his role at Bass, McBride worked with Mark Hunter, also a marketer, who was recently propelled to the chief executive’s role. Hunter, now at the helm of brewer Coors, says Bass was not a brand literate organisation until McBride “bought consumer focus to the portfolio”.

Hunter, who describes himself as “a general manager with a marketing background”, asserts that it is “insight” that makes a good chief executive. He believes that a financial background is not necessary when financial executives already work in the company.

There are others who have used their marketing skills and training to bring themselves to the fore. Although he is a business graduate, Channel 4 chief executive Andy Duncan was previously director of marketing, communications and audiences at the BBC. Before that, he was a marketer at Unilever, working on brands such as I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.

According to sources, while at the BBC, Duncan was integral to the success of the Freeview brand and known as “the implementer”. When he was appointed to head Channel 4 in 2004, he was the first person in the role not to have a television programming background.

McBride and Duncan represent several chief executives who have risen from marketing roles at big consumer brands. Brand owners such as Procter & Gamble (P&G) and Unilever give a broader training ground, putting marketers in a stronger position to take on the top role, say observers.

Stronger position

Another former P&G marketer, Lance Batchelor, was promoted to chief executive of Tesco Telecoms last month, from his board level Tesco UK marketing director role. Earlier this year, Reebok owner Adidas handed the brand’s global head of marketing, Uli Becker, the chief executive job at Reebok. Becker had proved himself at both Reebok and as head of brand marketing for Adidas.

So while it is still unusual, there are companies who recognise that a marketer might be the premium choice for the top job. Some feel that in an economic downturn, increasing pressure on companies to implement growth strategies might encourage them to look to marketers for leadership.

Brewerton concludes: “It all comes down to philosophy and what you see as a primary function of a chief executive. Is it a cost function, or is it the primary role for driving growth?”Kate O’FlahertyTX text introJust text

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