Russell Parsons: The modern marketing leaders might not be who you think

The marketing leaders of today are not necessarily digital experts or transformation specialists but commercially accountable strategic thinkers.

A week rarely goes by without hearing that ‘this is the best time to be a marketer’. Justification for such claims usually centres on the depth and breadth of responsibility the modern marketer enjoys.

A marketer now drives the technology, purpose and customer agenda of a business, it is often said. And when they are not leading the charge in these areas, they are working with HR on driving culture change and IT on digital transformation.

It is with this in mind we have decided to launch ‘Anatomy of a Leader’, an exploration of the role of marketing leaders in 2017. In one of our most extensive pieces of research yet we spoke to more than 20 senior marketers in qualitative interviews and polled more than 600.

The component parts have been fitted together and in our feature we unveil the responsibilities, capabilities and skills that make marketing leaders. We also draw conclusions on how the role has changed.

My analysis? The job of marketing is most definitely different from what it was but not necessarily in the way it is often said. The bulk of marketing leaders, it seems, are not the change-agents-in-chief contemplating the future of the future. Indeed, the truth is rather more prosaic – they are commercially focused strategists.

The current state of marketing has been the source of considerable indignation for many vocal and influential agitators. Our very own Mark Ritson has railed against the ‘tactification’ of the discipline at the expense of strategy, while Byron Sharp recently wrote an article calling on marketers to cease their lofty planet-saving pursuits and stop cringing about what they do and what they’re good at – contributing to the success of their business and the economy.

Marketing leaders are not the change-agents-in-chief contemplating the future of the future. They are commercially focused strategists.

I don’t believe all marketers are self-loathing kids in a digital toy shop but I do agree that there is much to admire about the job of marketing that is not being trumpeted. Discussion of the grand scale and scope of modern marketing leaders can sometimes outweigh talk of real-life nuts-and-bolts marketing strategy and execution.

Senior marketers have expressed concern to me over the attractiveness of marketing to new entrants to the business world, while hand-wringing over marketing’s business influence continues.

The rush to make the job of marketing be more things to more people doesn’t necessarily improve its standing among peers, colleagues or would-be marketers – it can make it sound ill-defined and too broad, as many of the commentators in our article piece say.

It’s heartening, then, that our research finds many marketers acknowledging and accepting the importance of being strategic and commercially savvy, of financial reporting and analytics, all key in the uncertain economic environment that has become a permanent state, post-financial crash. Maybe If there’s a new breed of marketer, they’re just grown-up business people.

That’s plenty to be tasked with and plenty to be proud of.

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