The 5 mistakes marketers make that prevent them from becoming leaders

The debate on whether obtaining a seat on the company board should be a marketers’ ultimate ambition continues to split the marketing community in terms of opinion. But every marketer that has passion for the profession can agree that they aspire to become a great leader.

Marketing Academy Inspire panel
Marketing Academy Inspire’s marketer panel (l-r): ISBA director general Mike Hughes, News UK CMO Katie Vanneck-Smith, Oystercatchers managing partner Richard Robinson, Havas London CEO Russ Lidstone and Housetrip CMO Zaid Al-Quassab.

The job of turning that aspiration into a reality is fraught with obstacles – some self-imposed and others dictated upon marketers by their organisations. Business leaders speaking at The Marketing Academy’s inaugural “Inspire” event in London this week outlined the five challenges and how they can be overcome in order for marketers to get to the top of their careers.

Mistake #1: marketers are underselling marketing

Marketers are “best placed” to become future CEOs, but they need to reframe how they and the skills they have are seen within the business, according to founding partner of creative agency 101 Phil Rumbol, who also draws on his experience as marketing director at Cadbury and alcohol giant InBev.

He said: “Part of the problem is too often people equate marketing to advertising and promotions, but I think marketing is about a whole lot more than that. It’s about doing things that make a brand or service relevant, but the whole image of marketing is skewed to the fluffy, spin, marketing men getting people to buy things they don’t really want. Marketers need to go back to basics and use [and talk about] advertising once the core and basics are as strong as they can possibly be.

That warped image of what a marketer does (or should be doing) in their role, is affecting their ability to influence the finance director.

As Rory Sutherland, executive creative director and vice chairman of OgilvyOne, acerbically framed it: “There’s a  danger marketers are suffering from kind of Stockholm Syndrome, it’s a bit like being [Josef] Fritzl’s [- found guilty of imprisoning his daughter for 24 years, alongside four of the children he had fathered with her -] children to the finance director. It’s been going on for so long [marketers] have started to take on some of the attributes of their oppressors”.

The result has seen marketers trying to speak the “deranged” language of economists – a lexicon that implies human behaviour is predictable – in justifying their actions, which means many finance directors still see marketing as a cost centre: a source of inefficiency rather than competitive advantage, Sutherland said. In order to obtain the budgets required for marketing innovation, marketers would do well to learn behavioural economic theory and apply it to marketing, using the “scientific terminology finance directors have come to expect”, giving them the opportunity to fight back with case studies of marketing effectiveness.

Mistake #2: marketers aren’t curious enough about other areas of the business

Former Procter & Gamble marketer and now CMO of holiday rental site Housetrip Zaid Al-Qassab said a good marketer is “insatiably” curious about people, but for many marketers that stops at their customers rather than looking internally too.

“An awful lot of people have a major blind spot where they’re not insatiably curious about all the other people in the business around them. I speak to a lot of marketing directors who do not know what they key performance measures are for their finance director and other departments…it’s hard to make it on to the board if you’re not curious about what they are trying to achieve,” he added.

Richard Robinson, managing partner at marketing consultancy firm Oystercatchers, shared Coke’s mantra: “the only brand you will ever manage is yourself”.

“That stuck with me, knowing who the hell you are, what your personal brand was and managing your career across all those different brands: it’s all about you and how you can enable all the other people around you to succeed. To do that you have to be hungry, hoover up as much information as you can to be interesting and have a point of view,” he added.

Mike Hughes, director general of ISBA, advised marketers to be particularly curious about the procurement department – not least because they report into the chief financial officer.

He added: “Procurement has to be embraced, cuddled or part of the team, one thing a marketing director should not do is be excluded in the conversation about the agency…because procurement can completely undermine what you get from an agency as if their margins are slashed wafer thin, you won’t get the best people.”

Andy Duncan Camelot
Andy Duncan, Camelot UK CEO and Advertising Association president (Photo credit: Bronac McNeill).

Being curious about other areas of the business isn’t just about gaining influence. Camelot UK CEO and Advertising Association president Andy Duncan said there is a correlation between the level in which people feel they are involved with a project to how committed they are to the task.

Mistake #3: marketers forget about their ability to diversify the board

Oystercatchers’ Robinson compared a recent AdAge survey that found just 0.0038 per cent of marketers sit on a company board with a E&Y report which suggests 14% of chief financial officers do the same to highlight where marketing still falls down in terms of leadership.

But marketers are in the best position to bring much needed diversity to the board, according to News UK chief marketing officer Katie Vanneck-Smith.

She explained that marketers are generally younger than their friends in the finance department and can offer a voice more representative of their customer base.

About 60 per cent of marketers are women, Vanneck-Smith said, offering a balance to board meetings Sutherland earlier described as a “masturbatory contest between men as to who’s better at reading a balance sheet”.

And marketers can also help “demystify” digital, Vanneck-Smith said.

She added: “There’s a lot of gobbledegook and made up words on digital that scare members of the board because it’s not in their vocabulary or usage…we are there as plain speakers to help demystify because we are good communicators as marketers.”  

Mistake #4: marketers aren’t placing enough importance on their personal brand

Marketing Academy founder and CEO Sherilyn Shackell emphasised the importance of building up a personal brand when looking to move up the ladder.

Attending or speaking at events, then organising internal workshops to share learnings; creating a blog; and offering to work, coach and buddy other marketers or people around the business were among the tips Shackell shared for marketers to help get their names in front of the right people.

Ultimately a personal brand is built up by the decisions marketers make in their careers. Jorge Postigo, associate principal at consultancy firm McKinsey advised marketers to constantly “set the course” for their business in the eyes of their colleagues and peers.

He added: “People look up towards other people for guidance and director. There’s an opportunity to step up and say confidently ‘we are going that way’, not because you’re bossy or want to step on top of everyone else.

“Many times I have seen how consensus leadership is a failed exercise in stumbling on a decision. Sometimes you need to say ‘we are going this that way’. Bearing the consequence of that risk and believe it will be right is what’s also required for a leader.

“Ask for forgiveness, not permission.”

Mistake #5: marketers have become too risk averse

Marketers can learn a lot from start-ups about the importance of taking risks in the quest to succeed – hence why so many brands from Unilever, to Mondelez, to O2 have set up their own incubators to gain knowledge and skills from the entrepreneurs within fledgling businesses dissimilar to the ones they operate.

Entrepreneurs from five start-ups within O2’s start-up accelerator shared their stories and advice to the marketers looking outside their organisations from leadership advice at the Marketing Academy event.

Tim Carrigan, founder of office furniture business Open Desk and former managing partner of OgilvyOne UK, said the marketing and marketing services industries are too “navel gazing” about the importance of customer insight in building out their propositions, rather than just asking their customers themselves.

“What’s stopping people using [social media tools] and asking customers? They say ‘we can’t do that because it’ll damage our brand’ but nobody in any of those meetings said ‘how much damage is it doing to your brand not doing those things.

“That’s what startups do well, they take new tools and engage with the customer and see what works. Corporations need to do that and there’s absolutely no reason they can’t apart from the rules they have created themselves,” Carrigan said.

Camelot’s Duncan also emphasised the importance of risk taking, advising marketers to “be bold, be brave and play to win”. Duncan, the former chief executive of Channel 4 and former BBC director of communications said marketers could learn a lot from the media industry – which often has to turn around a news package in a matter of hours or be creative with editorial content to stand out – about speed of judgment and being entrepreneurial in their approach.

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