The CEO role has never been so accessible for marketers

We are entering an era where marketers are particularly well suited to make it into the top job. Just over two weeks ago, Centaur Media – owner of both Marketing Week and Econsultancy – appointed former marketer Andria Vidler as its new chief executive.

Ashley Friedlein

Vidler’s previous roles contain plenty of general management and leadership experience, of course, as CEO of EMI Music UK & Ireland and managing director of Magic Radio and Capital Radio. But her heritage lies in the marketing world – she has also been marketing and business development director for BBC Sport and chief marketer for Bauer Media.

Often marketers are seen as too disconnected from the finances of businesses to make it into the chief executive’s job. But some of the most famous leaders have grown into the CEO role. Tesco’s Terry Leahy, for example, started in marketing and moved via broader commercial and general management roles into the CEO position.

So why is now the right time for more marketers to move into the CEO role? There are two main reasons. Firstly, and most importantly, you will not have missed talk of ‘customer-centricity’ or, more recently, ‘customer experience’ – the latter being ‘omnichannel’ of course. For some years, it felt like the talk about customer-centricity was just that: talk. But it now feels like the strategic intent and focus around customer-centricity is more than just vapid management speak.

IBM has recently published research, titled ‘The Customer-Activated Enterprise’, which is based on in-depth interviews with over 4,000 CEOs around the world. The focus on customers comes across loud and clear. The ‘voice of the customer’ really is starting to drive strategy and operations; the C-suite are spending more of their time personally on customer experience management and ecommerce and proportionally less on things like the supply chain, risk, partner management, security and operations.

In 1998, Pine and Gilmore published a piece of work in the Harvard Business Review which shows how economies mature over time: starting with the extraction of commodities, moving into a manufacturing focus, then onto a service economy. But the final stage of evolution is an economy based on experiences, where true differentiation and competitive advantage comes from the experiences you can deliver.

So we are living in an economic environment where (recessions and toxic debt notwithstanding) the drivers of future value, and the strategic direction of businesses, are based on true customer-centricity and experiences – the domain of marketing. We should be entering a golden era for marketers to lead businesses.

The second reason is about growth and change. Assuming the recession, the internet, global competition, Google, or some pesky start-up, has not destroyed your business and you have made it through some painful organisational changes, then we now start to hear about growth. How are we going to grow? Where are the opportunities? How do we change how we have done things before?

Almost always there is a strong digital component to this, in terms of culture, marketing and technology. Who better to set a bold vision, to energise for growth, to be a catalyst for change than a marketer? Specifically – and I would say this, of course – a marketer with strong digital skills and experience.

I see this happening right now. Those marketers who have digital experience are moving into roles that are multichannel and taking ownership not only of significant P&Ls, but also all the customer-facing functions (such as sales, customer service, as well as marketing).

Sometimes this role is called ‘multichannel director’, sometimes ‘chief customer officer’, sometimes ‘chief digital officer’. But the next role for these executives will surely be CEO.

Of course, to be a CEO, it is not enough to be good at digital, marketing, customer-centricity and leading change. You must also be strategic and commercial too. But the best marketers will be doing that already (see the Modern Marketing Manifesto for a guide at mwlinks.co.uk/momama). We are setting high expectations of marketers, but you have to aim high to reach the top.

Ashley Friedlein is the CEO of Econsultancy, a sister brand of Marketing Week

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