What makes a modern marketing leader? Received wisdom suggests they need to be strategic and empathetic visionaries, natural storytellers with an endless curiosity and insatiable desire to learn. Not a lot to ask.
From being a whizz with data to a customer champion and motivator of diverse and inclusive teams, marketing leaders are also required to deliver stellar results across an ever expanding list of channels.
In order to discover the attributes, responsibilities and core skills most important to being a leader in the field of marketing – and in business more widely – Marketing Week has carried out an in-depth study encompassing both qualitative and quantitive research to reveal the ‘Anatomy of a Leader‘.
The high turnover of CMOs compared to their C-suite colleagues is symptomatic of confusion over what a marketing leader’s key attributes and areas of experience need to be, according to Mimi Turner. Formerly head of strategy at Vice and marketing director at The Lad Bible, Turner believes marketers are, as a result, in danger of suffering a crisis of identity.
“When I first came back from maternity leave after my eldest was born, I had the odd feeling that my life had become a play where I had to play all the parts. I was constantly rushing off stage for a costume change so that I could come on as another character,” she explains.
I remain convinced that most marketers don’t really understand gross margin and variable costs and live in a bullshit bubble.
“Being a CMO has become a bit like that. Different stakeholders, different demands, different skill sets. If these combine with unrealistic expectations and lack of support, it can make the role challenging.”
Given the shrinking length of CMO tenure, marketing leaders need to make their impact felt on a business faster than ever.
Head of creative excellence at Bacardi, Zara Mirza, says: “The average CMO role is less than two years, so you need to make an impact quickly and for that to land a lot faster than previously. Connected to that you need to be resilient, because if you are at the forefront of change, you are pushing against the machine.”
Redefining key responsibilities
Representing the bridge between a business and its customers, marketers are at a very real risk of being pulled in a number of directions in their pursuit for success. However, it might be time marketers refocused their priorities, according to Marketing Week’s Anatomy of a Leader research.
Our survey of more than 600 marketers divided sets of skills into ‘responsibilities’ and ‘attributes’, finding that sales and commercial awareness (74%) is considered the most important responsibility marketers must master to become leaders.
The importance of being sales savvy and commercial resonates with Peugeot marketing director, Mark Pickles, who believes the gap between sales and marketing is now almost non-existent.
“The days of building the perfect mix of the ‘four P’ [product, price, promotion, place] and then throwing it over to the sales team are dead. With real-time optimisation, fast-moving competitive markets and spiralling levels of consumer insight, the whole funnel from awareness right through to action is firmly in the control of the marketing leader,” says Pickles.
Being commercially savvy is just as important today as it was decades ago, rather it is the speed of delivery that has changed, suggests IBM’s UK CMO Lisa Gilbert. She argues that to keep pace marketers need to understand that waiting for perfection will not win the game.
“It’s about being ‘perfect enough’, putting your product or service out into the market and responding quickly to your clients to make it better and better,” says Gilbert.
Britvic CMO Matt Barwell, however, believes commercial awareness on its own is not enough; it must be paired with great execution and the desire to put innovation into action.
“The ability to lead and deliver great innovation through an organisation requires a host of skills that tends to stretch the core capabilities of an organisation. So the ability to imagine, inspire and align teams of people are key in this space.”
Growing in importance
Already high on the list of requirements, the need for sales and commercial awareness is also growing in importance, according to 82% of marketers. Knowledge of innovation and new product development (82%), data science and mathematics (73%) and psychology (63%) are also rising up the agenda for the modern marketing leader.
Despite fully supporting the concept that sales and commercial awareness are crucial skills for marketers, Marketing Week columnist Mark Ritson is adamant this is an area of expertise the entire industry must improve on.
Having an appreciation of the challenges faced in areas such as procurement and supply chain helps us collaborate better.
Matt Barwell, Britvic
“Marketers are more and more off the commercial pace. We arse about with fanciful terms like purpose, while the rest of the organisation raises its eyebrows and worries about Q3 numbers. I remain convinced that most marketers don’t really understand gross margin and variable costs and live in a bullshit bubble,” says Ritson.
Strong commercial awareness combined with the ability to demonstrate the difference marketing makes to the bottom line is the foundation for success, says Marketing Week columnist and chair of The Pool, Tanya Joseph, who was also architect of the award-winning ‘This Girl Can’ campaign while at Sport England.
She recognises that as marketers are gaining a larger share of voice at senior levels they are becoming better at demonstrating their return on investment.
“We were really good at selling product, but not good at selling ourselves. Now we’re much better at demonstrating [our impact] because we’re using commercial language. We can show that ‘I did this and this drove sales’, and as a result we’re getting more respect,” says Joseph.
Becoming less functional
The research indicates a clear shift away from the functional aspects of the role the further marketers climb up the career ladder.
Of those surveyed, 28% believe knowledge of copywriting has become less important for marketing leaders, followed by a knowledge of design (19%), procurement (15%) and supply chain and distribution (14%).
This makes sense to Ritson, who believes marketers should hire good creative people for copywriting, rather than thinking they can do the job themselves.
Peugeot’s Pickles agrees, explaining that such skills are now relatively straightforward to buy in or subcontract, whereas the responsibility for identifying, predicting and delivering on consumer needs cannot be farmed out.
“The technical skills a modern marketer needs are more about interpretation, direction setting and opportunity identification. In my framework, the marketing leader determines the who, why, where and when, and the execution of duties (the what and how) can be placed in the hands of professionals with those specific skills,” he adds.
Outsourcing functional skills is not the approach at IBM, where the team have started to bring some specific skills back in-house to reduce time to market.
“In a world where social and digital are kings and queens, responding and iterating on content in real time with experts who know the brand inside and out is a model we are testing at the moment,” explains Gilbert.
The decline in importance of technical skills is a problem for Barwell, who believes design, in particular, is growing in importance as brands need to maintain a consistent visual image across a widening number of touchpoints.
At Britvic, the launch of any new product involves procurement, supply chain, innovation and insight all working closely with the brand team to create a product that is visually consistent.
The technical skills a modern marketer needs are more about interpretation, direction setting and opportunity identification.
Mark Pickles, Peugeot
“For marketing leaders, having an appreciation of the challenges faced in areas such as procurement and supply chain helps us collaborate better with our colleagues to develop innovative solutions. Given the current macro-economic environment, the importance of these areas, if anything, is becoming more important,” adds Barwell.
LinkedIn CMO Shannon Stubo is also concerned by this apparent shift away from skills such as copywriting. “I’m surprised that the ability to tell a compelling story wasn’t highlighted in the research and that over a quarter of those surveyed thought copywriting was less important,” she says.
“As the lines between marketing, communications and sales becomes increasingly blurred, brands need to be more inspiring, accessible and human. In a B2B world in particular, content marketing sits at the heart of storytelling.”
Tanya Joseph recognises that while these functional aspects are essential foundation skills, as marketers become more senior they naturally do less of this kind of work. However, she believes it is the CMO’s responsibility to understand these fundamental skills in order to guide the wider team.
“If you don’t understand the principles of procurement, for example, then you’re losing control of a lot of your business to people who might be procurement experts, but don’t necessarily understand marketing,” says Joseph.
She explains that new leaders in particular need to learn when to be hands-on and when to delegate these functional responsibilities, which can be challenging as often they are promoted because they excel at the functional aspects of the role.
The shift away from functional skills to focus on sales and commerciality underlines how important it is for leaders to build on their knowledge of the fundamental elements of marketing in order to deliver a strategic vision that will directly impact on the bottom line.
Marketing Week will be publishing more findings from the Anatomy of a Leader research throughout August.