Strategy means nothing without leadership

Even the best marketing strategy, driven by the deepest of customer insights, will go nowhere if you can’t convince colleagues it is the right course of action.

Some time ago, a CMO asked me to assess his global team’s capabilities. After two years and a six-figure training investment, marketing – in the eyes of other departments – was still seen as a lightweight function. My diagnosis stopped him in his tracks: “Deep functional expertise, but almost no leadership.”

Based on my assessment, 90% of his team was now digitally savvy. Half had attended a generic leadership course (with a focus on leading team members). But nobody had the most critical marketing leadership skills: mobilising people for change within the organisation. For this team, it was back to square one. They reminded me of my first career mistake: believing that a great marketing strategy is all it takes to succeed.

At the time, I worked for a well-known consumer goods company. I had just been promoted to marketing director. A member of the firm’s high-potential programme, I had completed numerous marketing courses, most with distinction. My career had reached a new height. But still, I was ready to leave.

Too often, marketers have the right answers but fail to lead the internal debate.

My brand was tricky: kitchen towels. Competition was cut-throat and we were losing money. Overcapacity meant producers were flooding the market with cheap products. Private label was on the rise. Rumours circulated about a major competitor entering. But that wasn’t the half of it. Our research clearly showed customers couldn’t care less about their kitchen towel brand.

I worked day and night on a radical turnaround plan. We had to bring costs down, simplify operations and cut the number of variants so our factories could run at full speed. On the shelf, we needed to draw more attention with a stand-out design, more convenient packaging and two new innovative variants. Customers, I learned, spend about one second deciding which kitchen towel to buy. This single second was the race we needed to win.

Lack of leadership

The turnaround plan earned me an MBA thesis distinction, but inside my company it went nowhere. With the competitor entry on the horizon, our well-intentioned product developers, going over my head, got the CEO excited about an expensive ‘blow dry’ technology, which would produce softer and more absorbent towels. I lost the battle.

Dismissing my turnaround proposal, the company embarked upon a multimillion-dollar plan to make towels that customers don’t care about a bit softer.

I decided: if the company wasn’t ready to listen to marketing facts, I shouldn’t waste my energy. It was time to move on. I quit.

READ MORE: Do you have the Anatomy of a Leader?

Later, I learned the hard way that my logic in quitting had one major flaw. Marketing isn’t just about great strategy work, branding, pricing or campaigning. Marketing is also – in fact mostly – about getting people in other departments to do the right things for customers.

This is the first time I’m sharing this back story, but it’s the reason I keep funding CMO leadership research (including, among others, what I believe to be the largest-ever study on CMO success, with London Business School’s Patrick Barwise).

Marketing is about getting people in other departments to do the right things for customers.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve literally sat through hundreds of C-suite meetings in which marketers presented excellent plans, but the board ignored them. What was going on? The answer is simple: someone else from operations, sales, or finance had already walked the halls to spread a different idea. Too often, marketers have the right answers but fail to lead the internal debate.

A big part of marketing leadership is shaping the debate at the top. To be heard by key decision makers, marketers must find the essential overlap between what customers want and what the C-suite wants.

Non-marketers don’t care about segmentation, attribution, programmatic or whatever the latest marketing buzzword may be. Claiming a seat at the top table means getting into the profitable revenue camp, in other words demonstrating how marketing work drives the business.

Digital is a distraction

What’s the opposite of a delighted customer? A United customer! The shameful ‘passenger dragged off a plane’ case demonstrated the people who deliver the customer experience don’t typically work in marketing.

That’s why marketing leadership is also about leading the many colleagues outside the marketing silo. How? The most successful marketers have a story to tell: a story of hope that invites colleagues to listen and join in. They measure customer satisfaction and share recommendations widely. They start movements through tests and pilots and create small successes that generate confidence in their marketing plans.

READ MORE: Mark Ritson – United’s CEO makes a mockery of the word ‘leadership’

In my and Barwise’s global research, marketing leadership skills were the single biggest driver of CMO success – but they are still a rare find. In my work assessing marketing teams’ competencies, I consistently find that very few team members have ever considered taking any marketing leadership training. It’s no surprise, then, that these teams lack internal influence.

There’s another significant barrier to increasing marketing leadership skills in today’s world: digital. With all the current hype around big data, AR, VR, etc, marketers are so busy keeping up with new functional skills that leadership falls off the cliff.

Doing marketing just isn’t the same as leading marketing.

The marketing team I mentioned earlier in this column had fallen into that trap. The CMO had put all the team’s eggs into the digital skills basket and created a group of highly capable eggheads.

But there’s hope, according to Marketing Week’s new Anatomy of a Leader research. Asked which skills will matter most for marketers in the future, 86% of respondents selected strategic thinking, 74% commercial awareness, and 61% relationship building (digital stuff comes out much lower). Will marketers get serious about leadership after all? I’m carefully optimistic.

PS, about the kitchen towels: I was right. Some time ago I learned that my company had exited the entire business. The technology investment was a disaster just as I had anticipated. But I felt no glee at this: I know it meant millions of dollars written off and hundreds of jobs lost.

Of course, many factors contributed to the failure. But even as a young marketer, I could have exhibited more leadership. Instead, I gave up after two presentations. And by giving up early, I was unable to prevent my firm from making an ill-advised technology investment.

Doing marketing just isn’t the same as leading marketing.

Thomas Barta is a marketing leadership expert, speaker, and co-author with Patrick Barwise of The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader.



There are 5 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Justine Manche 11 Aug 2017

    Great article – one of the most insightful articles I have read in a while. Leadership doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people. Being able to win people over to your strategy and bring them with you is a key factor to success. I recently attended a great impact and influencing course run by John Mahoney of Reputation Inc. John is an inspirational trainer and coach.

    In my experience, silos never work – whether it is siloed thinking or behaviours it! I agree that whatever level you at in your career you need to work on developing great leadership skills. Also think that in order for marketing teams to succeed and be taken seriously they need rounded marketeers who have digital skills but are fundamentally good leaders, strong strategists, great collaborators and are above all commercial.

  2. Pascale Hayward 11 Aug 2017

    Excellent article about the fundamental marketing skills.

  3. malcolm wicks 11 Aug 2017

    Good article Thomas. I learnt a similar lesson several years . Leadership and the power of persuasion is vital to making things actually happen. We all love and understand our area of expertise be it Digital or Marketing strategy and we have to remember that others do not care about it either as much or at all.

    I learned that the best way to get buy in from the top team is to first understand how their individual success is measured and what they as individuals care about. Any marketing strategy that I proposed started by focusing on those areas and their outcomes. As most proposals and plans don’t do this it was a much easier ride and far more chance of being implemented because it was in “their” best interests.

    Of course none of this is exactly rocket science it’s what we do in Sales and Marketing every day when selling to customers. The same skills need to be deployed internally and I’m amazed how frequently they are not – especially in such a key area as strategy.

  4. Ellie Morley 23 Aug 2017

    I think we can be guilty of assuming that a ‘marketing leader’ is always someone senior. But the kitchen towel scenario shows it can also be someone earlier on in their career who is leading the marketing efforts and demonstrating the value of marketing to people in other departments. Made me think about it from a different perspective – really interesting read!

  5. Sarah Francis 12 Feb 2020

    Thanks for reminding us all about the bigger picture. You tell it so well although I have read your kitchen towel story before from your time at P&G! That bit isn’t true!

    Leadership takes a lot of practice (as well as confidence). In this day and age human connections within the organisation are deteriorating while technical abilities are ampted up to max. Please keep banging your drum to help refocus those who give a damn about the companies we work for and not just interested in ticking the boxes.

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