Marketers seek reconnection to power source

It might shock you to know that fewer than 25% of marketing leaders can claim capability in strategic, cross-functional marketing activities. But even more stunning is that this slander on the marketing profession is being reported by top marketers themselves, speaking out from 50 of the world’s major organisations.By Maeve Hosea

It isn’t just a lack of capability among their workers that is worrying marketers; it’s the role of marketing itself within their companies. According to a survey of 50 executives within large international brands by the Chartered Institute of Marketing, 57% report that marketing functions are divorced from a strategic role. As a result, 82% are dissatisfied with the position of marketing within their organisation.

So why are so many marketers failing to meet the grade in terms of ability, training and business responsibility?

For Steven Sturgeon, global marketing director at distiller William Grant & Sons, the problem with marketing being disconnected from other corporate functions is down to the classic issue of a lack of marketers in boardrooms.

As a man who sits on the executive committee of his own employer, he believes this makes all the difference. “If you look at the drinks business, those companies doing well in terms of volumes all seem to have marketing directors on the board.”

He points out that another advantage of having a marketer at board level is the presence of someone in the room understanding brand value and how such issues as pricing might compromise that. “The marketing director is the person who is closest to what makes up the brand and therefore the profit drivers for business. If they are not there on the board, the wrong decisions could be made,” he warns.

There are some sectors where marketing influence at the top is particularly relevant, according to Patrick Cairns, a former Unilever marketer who is now managing director of the Plum Baby food business: “For all consumer businesses, it is important to have a marketing representative at the top level because it is crucial to position your consumer’s voice at the heart of the business – if that voice is not loud and clear, decisions might be made where that voice is not taken into consideration.”

Cairns also points out a second challenge relating to large companies like his own former employer Unilever. “Once strategic decisions are made, it is important that they are more than bits of paper and that they are executed throughout the business.”

He says that if strategy from the top of organisations can be filtered down through marketing departments, it is likely to have far more impact around the rest of the organisation. The marketing department is likely to have good communication facilities, and involving it from the start will make internal messages much more convincing and effective.

It comes down to two questions, says Cairns: “How do you input marketing into the boardroom? And how do you get strategic decision-making out of the boardroom and into marketing? Both of these demand that you have marketing at the heart of the business.”

But David Thorp, director of research and professional development at The Chartered Institute of Marketing, which produced the research, warns that too much focus on the position of senior marketers politically within an organisation can backfire. He suggests that by concentrating so heavily on this, they risk missing other issues.

“Too many conversations about structure begin with lines on an organisation chart or the political bartering of task and resource allocation,” he says.

“Undoubtedly, these are sound issues to be addressed, but they often mask the true organisational challenges facing marketing leaders – those of the definition, understanding, role and purpose of marketing.”

Simon Thompson, European managing director at Lastminute.com and former UK marketing director of Honda, suggests it is not a structural issue of where marketing sits within an organisation but a philosophical one. “You either believe the customer is important or not. At Honda, for example, the customer is king – the whole research and development process is about delighting the customer,” he says.

Thompson believes that regardless of whether a chief marketer sits on the board or not, they should be a crucial part of any corporate strategy decisions. This is especially important during economic periods when clear return on investment is crucial.

He continues: “For those organisations that haven’t changed to see marketing as involved in the strategy of the business, there will be choppy waters ahead.”

To achieve better connections with the rest of their companies, however, will take some work on the part of marketers themselves because they will need to demonstrate their financial acumen. Thompson explains: “Marketers can still be pretty ‘flower arrangers’ but they have to be numerate and understand how the fundamentals of business work.”

This may require many marketers to go through a retraining process to get up to speed with what is expected by executives in other areas of the business. The senior people who head marketing departments often trained more than 30 years ago and while they have the benefit of many years of experience, they are more used to executing strategy than generating it.

Vincent Potier, a former Vodafone and Universal Music marketer who is now UK managing director at telecoms company Vonage, says: “One of the main challenges for marketing in organisations is how to reconcile the people who learned their trade in the Eighties model of marketing. They’re marking all the ‘marketing tick boxes’ before launching a product. With how the market is now, everything is totally different.”

He says a modern interpretation of a marketing department is about helping the entire organisation better understand the customer to ensure future financial success. Potier explains:  “Guide the company in order to make the right choices for the future on how you treat consumers and how you make them happy with your product.”

It is this skill in guiding the company that offers marketers the chance to break out of that 57% feeling divorced from strategy. As an increasing number of consumers cut back on spending and look for the value in products they buy, marketers have the benefits of consumer understanding in a way that the chief financial officer can never possess.

James Scroggs, vice-president of consumer business at Spinvox, says the marketer’s ability to see what works for customers is what can help add to the bottom line in tough times. Scroggs argues that being able to spot what makes a product or service have “intrinsic value in its own right” is what then determines “what you can charge, how you can charge and the length of your relationship with the consumer”.

For Scroggs, marketing is not necessarily the end packaging that a business offers its buyers but the understanding of how to use human insights to ensure people buy. He enthuses: “It is about taking an insight and creating completely new value metrics around it.”

For marketing to be taken seriously as a discipline, connected to other integral business departments, there is clearly still work to be done. Part of this is about making sure as an industry that marketers are not pigeonholed as the creative types to do the pretty stuff after the real thinking has taken place. It will also take hard work by marketers themselves to make sure that their business and financial acumen comes up to scratch.

“Marketing disconnect is a problem,” admits Cairns at Plum Baby. If corporate boards choose three or five-year strategies that don’t take notice of assets such as brands and their importance to the bottom line, they are unlikely to have an enduring financial impact.

Cairns concludes: “The ability to sell your brand over the long term is vitally important to its success.”

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