Three CEOs on making the jump from marketing to the top job

Marketers wanting to become CEO need to identify what they can bring to a business, while acknowledging the challenges other departments face.

LeadershipThree former marketers-turned-CEOs were sharing their experience at making the step up to the top job at Marketing Week’s Leadership Summit today (22 May).

In a panel hosted by Marketing Week editor-in-chief Russell Parsons, the three CEOs were asked what current marketers need to stop, start and keep doing if they aspire to reach the head of the table.

Chris Duncan, who recently stepped down from his position as CEO at Bauer Media Publishing, kicked things off with a little bit of poetry. He encouraged the gathered audience to take heed of the Robert Burns poem ‘To a louse’ which contains the line: ‘Oh, would some Power the gift give us / To see ourselves as others see us!’

His point being that CMOs can feel “cut off” from the rest of the business as they get about their work, but to step up it’s imperative they see marketing “within the context of the whole business”.

“You need to understand that marketing is the biggest discretionary budget out there,” he added. “It is an act of faith from the CEO every quarter to keep allowing that investment when compared to all of the other competing requirements for costs, investments, people and resources that every other part of the business has.”

Why a love of ‘chaos’ helps one CMO turned CEO stay ahead of the curveMarketers need to get their “sat nav” in order. The CEO, according to Duncan, is constantly looking three to six months out, while sometimes in the marketing teams he was worked with “you can listen to a lot of local traffic reports”. While that may be “interesting” that doesn’t leave a lot of time to “do anything about it” and so it’s important to keep forward-looking.

It’s something that resonated with former Eve Sleep CEO Cheryl Calverley, who recognises as a CMO you need to be “relentlessly optimistic” because the marketing department will frequently be the department that is trying something new. Whereas, once you become CEO you quickly realise that a lot of the role is “risk mitigation” and balancing competing interests against one another, she explained.

While Calverley entered the CEO role with her “optimistic marketing hat on”, she quickly realised she should “step back and consider the risk balance more closely”, adding that there was a “real shift there.”

While there was no poetry from Giffgaff CEO Ash Schofield, he did warn that any marketer making the leap from CMO to CEO is going to have to “clean up all their shit” they’ve left behind, as well as start building closer relationships with the teams around marketing.

Upon becoming CEO, he quickly realised the business hadn’t “really tapped into all the different contributions in the room” and that there was too much “wasted talent and resource” across the business.

Start now

As to what marketers need to start doing now, Duncan believes it’s worthwhile the marketing department “ask more questions” about whether a piece of activity is really necessary or not. Reflecting on his time at News UK, where he held various positions including chief customer officer for all its brands, he added because The Times owner was a portfolio business it would sometimes feel compelled to pump more money into products that were “ultimately going to fail”.

He encouraged the audience that if this scenario resonated to ask themselves if they would see any “impact” from the marketing investment or if it was a “plaster covering a bullet wound”, and to reach an honest assessment.

The best marketers I’ve worked with can mix between being quite happy to explain why we’re doing what we’re doing, but are also part of a leadership team that can talk widely about the whole business.

Chris Duncan, former Bauer Media CEO

“There can be a little bit of marketing has to fight harder for its patch than many other disciplines,” he said. “Consequently, it can quite often almost draw lines and say: ‘Well I’m going to defend everything that is in here.’”

By doing that, Duncan argued marketers don’t raise questions about why operations is doing what it does or logistics has spent a fortune on something else, or that the finance team is suddenly 500-people strong.

“I’m not going to ask those questions because that kind of invites them to ask questions about me,” he said. “The best marketers I’ve worked with can mix between being quite happy to explain why we’re doing what we’re doing, but are also part of a leadership team that can talk widely about the whole business.”

Crossover challenges

The panel also touched on the conflict that can happen when a CMO becomes a CEO and then has to manage the person who replaced them. Schofield accepted that it can be a challenge for a CEO from a marketing background to stay in their lane and that it’s very much “a thing” that they can feel compelled to involve themselves.

He admits it took time to find a balance and there was an element of “checking myself and maybe stop talking when I don’t need to”.

Schofield explained his relationship now with Giffgaff CMO Sophie Wheater is about giving her “the space and the freedom” to do the role differently to how he did it.

“You’ve got to let them find themselves in the role,” he added.

‘What happens when you get there?’: What to do when CMO is not your end goalCalverley added that it can be a “massive privilege” to have a former marketer as your boss, as marketing will be their “favourite discipline” and they’ll understand the value that it can bring to a business.

“You have that privilege to be able to walk into the room and make them smile, because you can talk about the stuff they bloody care about, that gets them excited,” she said.

Duncan, however, cautions sometimes you can almost get “less support” from a CEO who comes from a marketing background as they can’t be seen as “a friend of marketing” and have to be “even-handed” with all the different decisions they need to make.

Keep doing

Finally, the panel touched on what marketers need to keep doing should they make it to CEO, or even if they want to be the best CMO they can be. Duncan believes the classic expression that marketing is the “voice of the customer” remains a critical part of what the function can bring to the business.

“You need to do it in a way that is supportive of the strategy and highlights where we are on the right track and to be able to tell stories around that,” he said.

It’s especially important, Duncan said, if the business is on something of a transformation journey.

“It’s very dangerous in businesses when the transformation programme becomes bigger than the customer business,” he noted. “We’re all there, ultimately, to serve the customer’s needs otherwise the business will fail.”

‘The clock is ticking’: CMOs on the merits of succession planningSchofield looks to what marketing’s “superpower” is and he believes every marketer is a “great storyteller” and that’s what they need to keep doing.

“Just amplify the storytelling that you do internally so you are bringing the business with you,” he added.

Calverley pointed to marketing’s ability to “look forward” and understand where the customer will be in the next few years.

“We’re the only part of business whose main job, complete job, is to understand where the hell humanity is going and how we can develop our business to fit that,” she said, throwing away the notion that marketers need to be as committed to a spreadsheet as other parts of the business.

“They want to turn us into accountants. That’s not my job. You should always ask yourself in your career, what is it that I can uniquely do? If loads of other people can look spreadsheets, don’t look at spreadsheets,” she concluded.