Marketing leaders need common sense and humility to get brand love

Lucy Handley
Lucy Handley

Marketing Week’s Lucy Handley gives her thoughts on what makes a great marketing leader after speaking to some of the UK’s biggest brand chiefs for her feature on marketing leadership.

Thinking about the customer, having a good head for figures and focusing on insight and single-minded propositions are the ways marketers get to the top.

So say marketing leaders such as Ian Armstrong at Honda, Mark Gilmour at Virgin and Clare Sheikh of RSA.

This is what you would expect from top branding bods. But what stood out when meeting Sheikh was her charisma and straightforwardness. Gilmour too talks about the value of being direct, saying that marketing is full of garbage and acronyms, and that great marketing is about common sense – something which surely can be learnt.

She also talks about the difficulties of managing a global brand. When Sheikh took up the position at the insurance brand in 2007, there were some 300 different international marques to grapple with, including names such as Vulcan, the Globe and the Planet.

She describes how this contributed to feeling at the time like “a flea in a nudist colony” – with so many things to eat she didn’t know what to attack first. Heartening to know that even the most competent people might fee a little overwhelmed to start with.

But common sense prevailed and the name RSA replace Royal Sun Alliance, a neat summary of the two brands that had merged.

Unilever’s consumer insight and marketing strategy director, Helen Lewis, also talks about making her staff sweat a little by getting those working in brand departments to spend a certain number of hours in consumers’ homes. If they don’t, they can’t come to key meetings. That might sound a bit like manipulation – but Lewis, who runs Unilever’s marketing academy, says it works.

Getting out of meetings and escaping the boardroom is so important for marketers. I sat in on a CIM meeting recently where an industry non-executive director spoke of his disgust that no-one on the board of a service company he once worked at was a customer of the firm itself. Surely to think that you know about your consumers without being one yourself is very arrogant, whether you are a senior marketer or other director on the board?

Some of the marketers taking part in a Brand Learning study on leadership, talk about arrogance or vanity and Nick Fell of SAB Miller speaks of the tendency of global marketers to want to show off about something they have done in their own market, without considering the rest of the world. Fell considers this a great sadness.

A senior marketer – who does not wish to be named – recently said that his global firm had an engineering and sales focus when he started there, but not much marketing nous. While the business had the desire to understand branding, it wasn’t there yet. A great leader will take that desire, get the right people in and make the brand the hottest thing in that sector.

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