It’s a fallacy that marketers can’t be good CEOs

  • Check out our feature on Merlin Entertainments’ Nick Varney – the marketer in charge of a £2.25bn business here
  • Get an insider’s view of Merlin’s structure here
  • Discover Varney’s six point growth driver plan here
  • Varney says: “The most efficient channel for us is publicity”, read why here

Public relations and marketing professionals have made tremendous gains in recent years to earn a coveted spot within the C-suite. It’s been a long, tough battle, but on many fronts, the tide has shifted toward realizing that these professions play a key strategic role in advancing a business’ objectives.

This reality is tempered slightly by two recent features in Marketing Week. One noted that a majority (73%) of CEOs say “marketers lack credibility” to adequately lead businesses; meanwhile, Merlin Entertainments CEO Nick Varney laid bare his belief that marketers are too siloed to become CEOs.

While some respected CEOs, such as Mr. Varney, express exasperation that young marketers are supposedly obtaining a rudimentary understanding of vital finance and sales objectives, others realize that those with a creative or communications background are quite adept at helping a business grow, even at the highest leadership level.

History abounds with tales of successful companies being led by public relations or marketing minds. Prime Minister David Cameron, the former head of corporate affairs at Carlton Communications, now leads the world’s sixth-largest economy; similarly, Sir Martin Sorrell (WPP), Roger Goodell (National Football League) and several others fill the ranks admirably. To be sure, all three gained extensive business and finance acumen, but there is no reason today’s brightest communicators couldn’t do the same.

The best marketers realize that ahead of connecting customers with a great product, or engaging key influencers and stakeholders, the goal of our work is to help businesses grow. If we achieve that, there is no reason we cannot ascend to the CEO desk.

But we must be more than mere analysts, digital gurus or trendspotters.

In being so fastidious that future CEOs obtain a holistic, finance-based business experience, Mr. Varney misses the point that there are many non-P&L skills a CEO must possess, including the ability to effectively communicate to a variety of internal and external audiences. One of the upsides of the digital age is that young professionals are able to quickly obtain experience in several business functions, including market research, communications and customer relations.

It’s rather antiquated to believe that the role of the modern CEO is simply overseeing the bottom line. The CEO is now chief communicator of the brand’s esoteric and real value, and key to ensuring a company’s reputation and credibility remains intact. Numerous studies have shown a direct correlation between positive brand reputation and profits. Case in point: PepsiCo revealed at a recent AMEC conference that it valued goodwill for its brands at $14 billion on its 2010 balance sheet.

That’s quite a strong indication of communications and marketing strategists’ vital roles in enhancing a firm’s bottom line.

While profits will always remain top priority, there are many other facets of running a company that require equal consideration. Chief among those is the ability of marketers and communicators to see beyond sales figures and help a company bridge the gap between market sentiment and business growth.

Just as the notion that a business can purchase reputation insurance to miraculously cure all of its credibility ills is a fallacy, so too is the belief that companies can fix their problems only by having a stellar sales or finance expert at the helm.

Communicators and marketers need to do a better job of helping business leaders and CEOs understand the strategic business value of our work, and how that directly impacts a company’s P&L. But claiming we “lack credibility” or are not fit to be a chief executive simply isn’t believable any more.

It takes all types to make modern businesses tick, and it takes strong communications skills to make sure people understand what you’re doing.

Rosanna Fiske, APR, is chair and chief executive officer of the Public Relations Society of America  (PRSA).

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