Stuck in the middle: Why marketing managers feel disconnected from the C-suite

An emerging divergence of opinion between marketing managers and the C-suite is highlighting different expectations around issues of inclusivity, agility and development.

Sitting in the middle tier of management, marketing mangers represent the bridge between the C-suite and junior marketers. Responsible for putting the executive team’s vision into action, managers are also expected to develop a whole new set of skills as they take on the responsibility of managing their own team.

There is, however, an emerging divergence of opinion between how marketing managers feel about the way their company operates in comparison to the C-suite. New research from Brand Learning shows a noticeable divide between a general sense of contentment with the status quo on the part of the C-suite, and a desire for change on the part of marketing managers.

Some 79% of C-suite respondents believe their organisation empowers people, compared to just 57% of marketing managers. This is such an important issue for managers that 70% say they would like their organisation to become better at empowering people.

Conducted from February to August, the research comprises interviews with global companies, as well as a quantitative survey of 108 marketing professionals in Europe and North America, and a roundtable discussion with commercial leaders.

Analysis of the various data sources finds 78% of the C-suite would describe their company as driven by an “inbuilt sense of curiosity”, while just 56% of managers share this opinion.

Similarly, 79% of C-suite level respondents are confident about their organisation’s ability to deliver the change necessary to meet future growth goals, compared to 70% of marketing managers.

Having a clear vision helps everyone feel like they are part of the same goal, not disparate parts working.

Rachel Johnson, Creative England

Brand Learning co-CEO Nevine el-Warraky attributes this so-called “disconnect” between managers and the C-suite to a number of different factors. She highlights the unique position of a marketing manager who sits in the middle and is expected to deliver the company’s vision, despite not being senior enough to set the vision themselves.

“The vision has to filter down to the people who are managing teams who often are not seeing the full picture. They are also often juggling competing priorities and organisational frameworks that are focused on performance and driving numbers,” says el-Warraky.

Geography could also have part to play, as teams today often work remotely and meetings happen via Skype rather than in person, meaning marketing managers have less direct contact with the C-suite.

This lack of contact and closed routes of communication could be having an impact on hiring decisions too. Recent research by executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates exposed a lack of confidence among CMOs in the next generation, with only 45% of those questioned able to name a natural successor within their business.

READ MORE: Is CMO succession in crisis?

In turn, a generation of rising marketing leaders lack confidence in their managers’ ability to help them develop skills for the future. Just 10% of these emerging marketers feel like their superiors are “highly effective” at developing them, prompting 50% to plan to leave their current employer in two years or less.

If brands are serious about retaining the best talent it is crucial to address the concerns of marketing managers and their search for greater creativity, agility and enhanced opportunities to grow.

Diversity of thought

Increasingly marketing managers are pushing their companies to prioritise inclusivity. Just 58% of marketing managers questioned by Brand Learning would confidently describe their company as inclusive and fostering creativity from all sources, compared to 77% of respondents from the C-suite.

These findings do not come as a surprise to marketing manager Rachel Johnson, who swapped large corporates like Universal Pictures and Sony Pictures for the close-knit team at Creative England.

“I was very much working with bigger corporate companies where you have bigger marketing teams and you might have quite a few marketing managers and senior marketing managers at lots of levels leading up to CMO,” she explains.

The experience is completely different at Creative England, where Johnson heads up the marketing department, managing a team of three and reporting directly into CMO Dawn Paine.

Johnson credits her day-to-day contact with Paine over the past 18 months with accelerating her development, while also teaching her more about the role of a CMO and the higher challenges within the business.

From this perspective she can see the marked differences between being a marketing manager in a large corporate organisation, where it is possible to feel like a cog in a machine, and being part of a small, inclusive team.

“It is about having that open communication. If the C-suite was closer to manager level and found ways of spending more time on that communication I don’t think it would be the issue that it is,” says Johnson.

“I don’t think it’s something I understood when I worked at a bigger company and there were lots of different layers between everybody.”

READ MORE: Why young marketers are taking a different route to the top

It is also important to note that the role of marketing manager differs from organisation to organisation, explains TSB senior marketing manager Emma Stacey.

“In its extremes the role can leap from being sat in front of the managing director or CEO discussing marketing strategy through to proof reading application forms. Because of that, the span of stakeholders and number of pieces of work you are involved in at any one time is like no other role and so being able to multitask and flex your working style is absolutely essential,” Stacey adds.

For me, true empowerment is when there is clear definition about roles and responsibility, which will be linked to both trust and competency.

Emma Stacey, TSB

Being given the autonomy to lead a team and feel like you are making a difference is crucial for marketing managers to progress, says Johnson. Part of leading the team means having close contact with junior employees and learning to balance their needs with the needs of the company.

“Marketing managers are right in the middle of hiring junior members of the team who have their ideas about how they see things evolving, so we’ve got a real sense of the strategy, the deliverables and the higher level end goals, and have got to somehow marry the two together in the middle,” Johnson explains.

Brand Learning’s el-Warraky agrees that their close proximity to the influx of new talent gives marketing managers a unique perspective on the evolving nature of work.

“Young people talk about understanding the purpose of the organisation, down to the brand level, and how the purpose is linked to their values. It is very much about bringing your whole self to work and ensuring that nothing in the purpose of the company clashes with your own personal view of the world,” she explains.

This opinion is shared by Cherie Cunningham, senior marketing manager for Dave at UKTV, who strongly believes that marketing teams which promote inclusivity, diversity and collaboration always make better creative decisions.

“Marketing managers are consistently seeing, interviewing and working directly with a diverse range of talent and this comes with great benefits – a fresh perspective reflective of the world we live in, as well as innovative new ideas,” she explains.

READ MORE: Marketers must reclaim the word ‘innovation’ before it dies

Empowerment enables agility

The fact only 57% of marketing managers feel empowered by their organisation is clearly a problem the C-suite should take seriously.

Stacey sees a direct correlation between being empowered and how motivated she feels in her role. “The better empowered you are, the more enjoyable the job becomes – for both you, your reports (as you let them do their jobs) and your manager. For me, true empowerment is when there is clear definition about roles and responsibility, which will be linked to both trust and competency.”

Giving marketing managers the freedom to create, nurture and execute ideas has been essential in helping Cunningham achieve throughout her career.

“Empowerment in my career has led to the most creative and often award-nominated campaign ideas, as well as ad hoc projects that help take brands to new and exciting places,” she explains.

“It means my direct reports feel motivated at work each day as they know the work and effort they put in makes a huge difference. We should all be able to go home each day with that feeling of ‘what I did today made a difference’.”

Empowerment in my career has led to the most creative and often award-nominated campaign ideas, as well as ad hoc projects that help take brands to new and exciting places.

Cherie Cunningham, Dave at UKTV

Creative England’s Rachel Johnson agrees that having an understanding of what the company is trying to achieve and having that very clearly demonstrated enables a marketer to empower themselves, because the end game is clear.

“Sometimes you can feel like a cog when you do things and you’ve only got an awareness of your little part of it. You can’t see the larger picture or the next step,” she adds.

“Having a clear vision helps everyone feel like they are part of the same goal, not disparate parts working.”

Empowerment feeds into agility, giving marketing managers the confidence to make decisions at pace. Not every organisation, however, is adept at putting the power back in marketing managers’ hands.

Just 53% of the managers surveyed by Brand Learning described their organisation as agile, quickly responsive and experimental, compared with 71% of C-suite level respondents. As a result, 63% of managers would like their organisation to be more agile.

Johnson recognises that marketing managers see the real need for agility, because they are responsible for finding practical ways to implement strategy. “That’s our job as managers to make sure that we’re feeding into a wider strategy, but also maintaining a good working environment where everyone feels like they’re contributing as well.”

Stacey understands why marketing managers would seek greater agility, especially if they see other organisations becoming more responsive in the way they plan and adapt to market conditions.

“I’ve worked on agile projects that have demonstrated how motivating and commercially effective this can be,” she recalls.

“When it [agile] means being able to reform how the organisation (and its partner agencies) work by empowering people to make decisions, removing unnecessary or over engineered processes, and having a dedicated and engaged resource with a clear and single minded goal – then, absolutely [yes].”

Creating closer ties between marketing managers and the C-suite will only help create more fluid working practices that both empower marketers to do a better job and provide a more inclusive environment that fosters innovation.

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