From mentoring online startups to sitting on the board of a multinational publicly listed company (plc), a slew of high-profile marketers have swapped brand-side roles for the freedom of portfolio management over the past year.
Notable among them is Roisin Donnelly, who after 31 years at Procter & Gamble resigned as brand director for Northern Europe last July to explore portfolio management. Alongside being an Advertising Standards Authority council member, Donnelly is now a non-executive director at businesses including food delivery app Just Eat, holiday accommodation business Bourne Leisure and the Internet Advertising Bureau UK (IAB).
Meanwhile, after departing Tesco in October last year, former chief customer officer and prolific non-exec Robin Terrell has taken on a number of directorships spanning high street retailer Wilko, betting company William Hill, homeware ecommerce site Amara Living and home security startup Cocoon – one of Marketing Week’s 100 Disruptive Brands. These positions sit alongside his longer-term non-exec position at fashion retailer Karen Millen.
Another high-profile marketer to spread his wings is former Pret A Manger marketing director Mark Palmer, who also left his role in October but remains at the business as a board advisor. He is also co-founder of drinks company Cawston Press, as well as non-executive chairman at Union Hand-Roasted Coffee and non-executive director of vegan snack company, The Primal Pantry.
The joy of variety
The breadth of projects Donnelly, Terrell and Palmer have taken on indicates the allure of portfolio management – variety. This was the main draw for Zoe Morgan, who became a non-executive director in 2007 following a string of high-profile marketing roles including seven years as Boots marketing director, as well as group marketing director roles at HBOS group (retail division) and The Co-operative Group.
“I had done three big corporate marketing jobs and thoroughly enjoyed them. I had a fascinating career, but I got to the stage where I had never done anything more entrepreneurial,” she explains.
Over the past decade, Morgan has held 10 different non-exec positions, deliberately selecting each role for its variety and scope. She currently balances commitments as non-executive director of medical tech company Kind Consumer, customer insight and engagement company Orchard, menswear retailer Moss Bros and specialist baker the Finsbury Food Group. Morgan believes it is her range of corporate experience that gives her the ability to relate to these different sectors.
“It’s not like I’ve been in one business or one market for 30 years. I have worked in DIY, banking, healthcare, travel, funerals and food in my corporate life. The thing that drives the non-exec positions I choose is the desire to have that variety of sector and marketplace,” she says.
“I also didn’t just want plc main board non-exec experience, I wanted to work with young startup businesses and entrepreneurs who might be interested in my strategic experience and commercial judgement.”
Owing to their differing size and stage of development, each company makes unique demands on their non-executive directors, explains Morgan. At a plc, where governance is a central element, non-execs are likely to sit on a main committee. Whereas in a startup they often take on a mentoring role.
“Sometimes when you come from corporate life you can think rather narrowly about what would be of interest,” she reflects. “I made the mistake of thinking that because I had been in retail for 20 years people [would pigeon-hole me as a retailer].
“I didn’t get my first retail non-exec role for five years. What I did get was a startup, which I hadn’t expected as I thought they would have dismissed me for being too corporate, but actually that was what they wanted.”
Finding a values match
For non-executive director Gill Barr, former John Lewis marketing director and group marketing director at The Co-operative Group, the sector a company operates in is the least interesting aspect. Instead, she focuses on a business’s ambition, growth objectives and goals.
“The quality of the chairman is also important. You have to ask, is this someone from whom I can learn a lot?
“The third thing is values. It is quite possible to go into another sector and find that you’re not comfortable with the business model, the values feel completely alien and the way the chairman operates is not something you feel sympathetic with. Think about the things that motivate you and give you a sense of accomplishment at work, and look to replicate those,” she advises.
Barr is now a trustee director of pensions specialist Willis Towers Watson, chair of water company Severn Trent’s customer challenge group and non-executive director at specialist payments company PayPoint.
In addition to using helping develop strategy, Barr has found her marketing-specific skills are also relevant when mentoring early stage startups, which she did as part of Telefonica’s digital accelerator Wayra.
When choosing a non-exec project, Daryl Fielding, former vice-president of marketing at Kraft Foods Europe and director of brand marketing at Vodafone, says it’s about weighing up whether she feels she can make a big contribution and will find the business stimulating. She likes a mix of projects that are both a passion and financially rewarding.
A non-exec director is like being a critical friend to the board. You open people’s eyes to other ways of doing.
As well as leading on The Marketing Academy’s Foundation for socially and economically disadvantaged young adults, Fielding is also a non-executive director of advertising agency Isobel and online music agency startup, Go To Musicians.
“As they are a startup, I’m bringing them some very elementary good business practice and help from general legal to how to manage the people they’re beginning to employ. Whereas at plc level it’s very much about guidance, encouragement and coaching, as opposed to the operational input,” she explains.
“A non-exec director is like being a critical friend to the board. You open people’s eyes to other ways of doing.”
Marketers strike the right balance
The strategic and general management experience possessed by a marketing director or CMO provides an enviable skill set for portfolio management. Barr believes the skills needed to be a non-executive are not a big jump from being a strategic marketing director, as both roles call on a diversity of experience and a commitment to listen to different views.
Morgan agrees that as marketers are by nature focused on driving future growth, finding new markets and understanding consumer needs, they are very well suited to portfolio management.
“I have always enjoyed that business development, commercial strategy element of being a marketer and that is really what non-execs do. I also think it helps that you tend to work across lots of different areas in a marketing career, so you are quite nimble naturally,” she adds.
However, Fielding acknowledges the skill set is evolving as brands move into the digital space, meaning some tech startups might be as likely to value the contribution of a 28-year-old marketer on their board as an experienced CMO.
Barr agrees that digitally savvy marketers have a real advantage with regard to attracting non-executive roles. “Marketers have a particular skill set that is really interesting to chairmen and boards,” she says.
“Given the speed at which things are happening now I think more boards are looking at relevant experience independent of seniority.”
Benefits of a dual role
Fielding advises any marketer thinking about portfolio management to take up a non-executive director role while still working in marketing as the enhanced experience will benefit the corporate role and make candidates a more attractive prospect to future directorships.
Barr took up her first non-executive position at construction firm Morgan Sindall in 2004 while working as group marketing director at The Co-operative Group. The dual roles proved a natural fit, with Barr finding many strategic synergies between the two businesses.
“I learnt an enormous amount and it’s two-way traffic. Your executive role benefits from understanding how other boards manage things and prioritise time, and you also learn from seeing other chairmen and CEOs at close quarters,” she says.
“The non-executive role benefits from having a wide range of different experiences around the table, which means they are much more likely to take an ‘outside-in perspective’ and think about business issues from the perspective of the customer rather than just internal metrics.”
Although Morgan can see the clear advantages of obtaining non-exec experience while still working in a corporate career, she appreciates it can be a tricky balancing act.
“With a non-exec role, they are paying you to be there when they need you and you will have no control over when that is. If a deal comes up suddenly, they might need you for an extensive burst and that’s hard if you’ve got a day job, which obviously is your main priority.”
Learning to adapt
While variety is one of the great benefits of being a non-executive director, it can also prove a challenge. Morgan acknowledges that as far as each business is concerned their company is the only one that matters and when they need you, they need you – even if as a non-exec you work with four other businesses.
“You have to be perfectly comfortable that if Sunday morning is the only think time that a CEO has and that’s when he would really like to chat to you, then you’re going to get a call on Sunday morning,” she explains.
“I don’t work all day every day, but I do work every day and it just depends. If the business is going through a merger or acquisition, then it’s going to be very intensive.”
Learning to change your mindset from one where it’s very much ‘I decide’ to ‘I advise, I think and I question’ is quite a big change. Some people really enjoy that and some don’t.
Accepting you will not always know the right answer is essential to being a non-executive director, argues Morgan, as is giving honest advice, even if the board chooses not to act on it. Non-execs also need to adapt to the fact they are no longer in an operational role and therefore cannot determine the pace of change.
“You have to be comfortable with the fact you are not dictating what happens. You’re there to challenge and build on their ideas, but it’s not your job to do it,” says Morgan.
“Learning to change your mindset from one where it’s very much ‘I decide’ to ‘I advise, I think and I question’ is quite a big change. Some people really enjoy that and some don’t.”
Although non-execs typically hold four or five directorships at any one time, these positions tend to have a natural lifespan. Morgan puts this life at between eight and 10 years, as after a decade in a business it can be difficult to maintain the level of independence required from a non-executive.
Despite the adjustments needed, a career in portfolio management can prove extremely satisfying. A decade into life as a non-executive director, Morgan has enjoyed it as much as her roles in marketing. “It’s like a second career. I don’t view my life as a working life and home life, I just have a life now of which work is an important and stimulating part,” she reflects.
“While to begin with the lack of being operationally involved was challenging because I had always been quite hands-on, I find now I can focus on things I find really exciting, like where do we go next and what could we do differently. You really can have the most interesting and added value life as a non-exec.”