‘Every problem is a marketing problem’: Why marketers make great general managers

Speaking at the Marketing Society’s Global Conference, eBay UK’s GM Eve Williams and General Mills’ VP MD Ben Pearman explained why marketers often make the leap to GM better than managers of other functions within a business – and why that makes for healthier businesses.

SkillsNewly appointed general managers (GMs) have an onerous task. They are suddenly responsible for the performance and development of functions of which they might have no personal experience. But, as two GMs who made the leap from marketing roles explain, the responsibilities of marketers make them well-placed to take on that task over people from other divisions within a business.

Speaking at The Marketing Society’s Global Conference 2023 today (14 November), eBay UK’s GM Eve Williams and General Mills’ VP managing director for Europe & Australia, Ben Pearman set out how their own journey through the industry set them up for the role of general managers.

Pearman said that “every problem” within a business is ultimately a marketing problem. Whether that is negotiating requests for investment or deciding upon strategic objectives, he argued marketers have a wider remit that better prepares them for the role.

He noted that while in many businesses it is often someone from a financial background that takes over vacant GM positions, at General Mills “most of our CEOs actually come through the marketing function, because we’re a very consumer-focused organisation.”

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That flexibility of the marketing function was also cited by Williams as a reason for why marketers take to the GM position well.

Williams, who was promoted to GM from CMO in March 2023, said that the “customer centricity” of marketing roles provides a good North Star for general managers, in addition to experience of P&L: “What marketing does is give you an incredible grounding for understanding the needs of your customers, and to understand how to marry that with the commercial objectives.”

That focus on consumer needs, Williams said, is paramount in 2023. She stated that while there is a temptation to focus upon shiny new trends like AI, for a business like eBay there needs to be a relentless lens on supporting customers through a cost of living crisis. She said: “Yes, consumers are evolving because of the channels they are using… But people also have basic needs, and it’s often the brands who have to step in on behalf of consumers” when those needs are not being met. That would not be possible, she argued, without the consumer focus afforded by a marketing role.

Marketing leaders

Williams pointed to eBay’s commercial partnership with Love Island as an example of a marketing-led idea that both focused upon consumer needs and delivered value back across the entire business. She said: “We had so many people from outside the team, [for example] on the production agency, saying ‘it’s never going to work. eBay can’t do this'” Despite that, she says that the campaign ultimately delivered a sharp uplift in eBay’s customer consideration around second-hand or “pre-loved” clothing.

As a result Williams advocated for establishing ‘purpose’ across the business – which has traditionally been a function of the marketing role. That, she says, will help align the business around a strategy. More often than not, she argued, that will also help keep the business’ focus sharply fixated on catering for the needs of its consumer.

Pearman acknowledged that there are universal challenges that apply to anyone stepping up to the GM role, regardless of whether or not they have a marketing background. He particularly cited people management as a potential roadblock, given that the managers now feeding into the GM have different skill sets and roles: “You’re like a kid in a sweet shop. Suddenly, I’ve got all these levers that you can pull and a tremendous mandate to drive change and growth integration.”

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Both panellists noted that the plurality of people reporting in effectively means GMs do not need to suddenly become experts in every role. Williams said she was worried about suddenly spending nights “poring over spreadsheets”, but ultimately that didn’t happen. Instead, she advocated for using the communications skills learned through marketing to effectively delegate: “Marketing is about collaboration, it’s about the end to end of how you change the customer’s perception of your brand. And so that requires you to be working with pricing teams or working with product development teams, working with tech teams”.

Marketing is about collaboration, it’s about the end to end of how you change the customer’s perception of your brand. And so that requires you to be working with pricing teams or working with product development teams, working with tech teams.

Additionally, Pearman believes that marketers’ overall focus on execution and collaboration helps to de-silo teams: He said: “We’ve had to narrow that gap between strategy and execution. So our teams now are much, much more integrated than they’d been previously, and much more agile”. He said that approach had led to a “much less perfectionist” approach at General Mills, which has encouraged a spirit of experimentation.

Junior marketers, tomorrow’s leaders

Both panellists agreed that there is still a lot of lessons from marketing teams that can be more widely applied to businesses. Just as marketers typically look to their junior and younger team members to develop strategy around new social platforms, Williams believe there is a need to make space for that younger expertise across a business more widely.

She said of her time at Asos: “I look back, and I see ideas that we hadn’t had or ideas that I kind of pushed beyond where we’ve been, I questioned whether we could have got there without new leaders coming into challenges.” She particularly cited not pushing hard enough for better LGBTQ+ representation in her role at Asos as something she would have done differently, and which she believes younger marketers could have provided validation as a business strategy.

Both Williams and Pearman were keen to note that a marketing background is not a silver bullet for the challenges of becoming GM. They did say, however, that the lessons learned coming up through a marketing division are widely applicable to the strategic functions of a general manager position.