Follow the leaders

What qualities do marketers need to reach the top and have the ear of the CEO? Research among some of the UK’s most senior marketers identifies the traits that separate the best from the rest and which secure a key role in shaping business strategy.

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Great marketing leaders can make consumers love and buy more of their brands, influence their chief executives and ensure businesses focus ruthlessly on the customer. But what qualities make a top marketer and how do they achieve these goals?

Leadership and training consultancy Brand Learning and AstraZeneca have gone in search of the magic formula for marketing leadership, asking a range of marketers at the top of their game what it means to be a chief marketer and how they make their roles central to their companies (see viewpoints, below).

Foremost, it is essential that people holding senior marketing roles are seen internally as strategic thinkers. Brand Learning founder and managing director Andy Bird says: “You can develop brilliant communication and generate demand in a one-dimensional way. But to lift it up so that you are helping to shape and drive what a company is doing, then you have to bring the entire organisation with you.”

For Bird, leadership is a combination of art and science. “It’s not just to do with vision and relationships. It’s also about a hard-nosed commitment to practical delivery, a focus on the commercial and being resilient under pressure,” he warns.

It is their focus on the consumer that enables marketers to set the agenda of the business and engage other teams, he argues. “On what basis does a marketing leader have the right to influence and drive the agenda of any business? Why would anyone in research and development or sales give the marketer the licence to do that?” By talking to other departments about the customer, rather than the marketing, answers Bird.

Tim Kaner, founder of Kancha Consulting and former director of marketing strategy office at Sony Europe, agrees, saying: “The really outstanding marketers are those who have an intuitive understanding of what customers want. They’re also able, through their influencing, leadership and coaching skills, to bring that vision to others.”

Mark Gilmour, brand director, Virgin Management

The lifeblood of this company is growth, new ideas and new businesses, so my role is about helping to start those businesses, making sure we have the right propositions and that we execute them well.

As a top-level marketer, you’ve got to be intrigued; you’ve got to have a naturally inquiring mind. It involves talking to frontline people and to consumers in order to understand them.

It’s also about determination and focus. Through being in the business for 20 years, I’ve come to realise that the greatest marketing is when you have a compelling, single-minded vision, and you drive it through an organisation. Sometimes you have to put your head above the parapet to keep it going. It’s all too easy to give up and try something else because people are being a bit wobbly about it. 

I think it’s also important to stop the “colouring-in” agenda: a lot of chief marketers go back to talking about tone of voice, colours and images. These are important for the brand, but we should be talking the language of the people we’re dealing with, understanding the commercial side of the organisation, what makes it tick and how we can add value.

It’s human nature to want to stick to routine and your comfort zones. But if you stay there, guess who’s going to be moving beyond you? Your customer. Unless we constantly re-evaluate and think ahead, we will get stuck.

Great marketing leaders must be the total embodiment of their brand. They must provide an utter clarity, focus and determination in the way they deliver their messages. And finally, if they promise something, they need to deliver it. There’s nothing more frustrating than non-delivery.

Helen Lewis, consumer insight and marketing strategy director, Unilever

We don’t call ourselves marketers; we’re brand developers or brand builders. The whole business is dependent on us establishing consumer preference for our brands.

It’s very easy in a big organisation to become so internally focused, managing complexity or managing each other, that you have to make an effort to break out of the office. You have to remind people and institutionalise the fact that they must connect directly and regularly with consumers. 

Every few years we have a big drive to reconnect with consumers. And I observe that the best leaders in our business play a central role in leading and inspiring that. You have to make an effort to make sure that everybody is thinking about the consumer all the time. The best way to do this is to go to people’s homes. We have something called a “consumer passport”, where staff have to do a certain number of hours in any given month visiting homes and taking in consumer experiences. If they don’t do those hours, they’re not allowed to attend key meetings.

If any brand is to have a very sharp point of view on the world, there has to be clarity over its consumer target. And the whole team involved in the brand must have empathy for that consumer. Just because you might be fantastic at marketing food, you may be lousy at beauty. And what you don’t want is a sort of technocratic situation where people hop from brand to brand without having a real passion for what they do. 

Great marketing leaders must have fantastic vision and a passion for what they’re doing. The people I admire most are those who engage at the big picture level without forgetting the day-to-day. 

Phil Chapman, group marketing director, Kerry Foods

World-class marketing is nearly always based on insight, whether it be from structured research, knowledge within the department or visits to the field.

It nearly always starts with an idea that comes from your customers and that you can link to your brand. And that insight is often very hard to capture in quantified research. Often it’s something intuitive – you listen in on a focus group and you suddenly pick up on something that’s special.

Then it’s the job of the marketer to convince everyone that it’s as exciting as you think it is, and drive it to delivery through all the obstacles that come up. If you want to make organisational change, you really must get the chief executive behind you, and they must let people know that they’re behind you.

One of the big challenges is the balance between international and local. When you get the phone call from Austria, saying, “my market’s different, it just won’t work here”, you have to decide quickly whether it’s important enough to get on a plane and persuade them.

To be a great marketer, you have to be comfortable with both the art and the science of your job. Marketing is about being logical and structured, but also about allowing yourself to be completely creative.

People have to trust you. You’ve got to like meeting people and listening to their points of view. It doesn’t mean being weak – when they’re wrong, tell them, making it clear you’re doing it genuinely for the best of the business.

And when they’ve had ideas, make it clear where they came from when you’re taking those around the world. Don’t pretend they’re your ideas – you might get five minutes of glory but you’ll have lost the team.

Tim Hawley, global marketing director, Bacardi

Great marketing is about getting the overall strategy right, being ruthlessly focused on the consumer and making money at the end of it.

There are two key leadership requirements. The first is strategic ability. Being able to plot the journey to the future. Setting a course. Making informed choices. To do this, you need to look outside and far ahead into the coming years to be able to identify the key drivers that will shape the future.

The second is about salesmanship. Leadership is about achieving goals through others. Any great marketing leader must be able to sell the plan, mission and future vision. Not just to the board, but throughout the organisation.

The ability to simplify messages to provide clear, straightforward direction, is key. A brilliant plan that no one understands or believes in will simply become a failed strategy.

The end-game is to win hearts and minds: one-on-one with senior managers and key decision makers is important. It humanises the plan and it gives staff members the opportunity to ask questions.

When employees understand where their work fits in, they are more likely to feel valued and motivated, to actively contribute, and the organisation starts to unite as a single unit. This means implementation of a strategy is more likely to be successful.

Implementation is the graveyard of

many strategies. You have to have the helicopter vision and you have to be obsessed by the implementation. If that doesn’t happen, then the strategy is doomed. Most marketers in senior roles probably don’t think about this side of things, and that is where they fail.

Ian Armstrong, marketing communications director, Honda

Great marketing leaders understand the commercial realities of the business and it’s not just about holding out for the brand. There’s a sense that we’re here to make money, we’re here to make profit. Marketing leaders must also have a good sense of what direction the company is best taking forward for the future.

They then need to be able to create compelling arguments to engage the organisation and bring its people behind their vision. And then they must have the ability to deliver their vision through the teams that are around them.

World-class marketing is something that touches you emotionally much more than rationally. Your brain makes an emotional decision long before it makes a rational one. And, therefore, world-class marketing is something that allows you to do that a lot more effectively than just giving people ten reasons why they should buy your product. 

At Honda, we do that by trying to extract stories. So, we tell people about our philosophy and we tell them about what we’ve been doing in various walks of life, for many years. Hopefully, they’ll respond to that thinking.

Insight comes from all sorts of places. It fuel an awful lot of what we do, but there is also a point at which we have to start shaping the future for people, to improve their lives.

So, you could ask someone: “Would you like a robot that helps you around the house? Or radar technology that allows you to stop cars crashing into each other on the motorway?” But without our prompting, people are probably not going to come up with these ideas themselves.

Key learnings: How to be a great marketing leader

Brand Learning worked with leadership coach Steve Radcliffe to suggest three areas which marketers must master to become leaders.

1 The future

  • Build belief in a clear vision of market opportunity based on a deep understanding of potential customer needs
  • Be restless with the status quo and look for opportunities to challenge and disrupt
  • Bring the world of the consumer alive and so establish a culture of insightfulness
  • Segment your consumers to help guide what your brand portfolio will look like
  • Generate enduring and inspiring brand ideas to bring consumer benefits to life

2 Engagement

  • Focus people’s attention on the consumer
  • Clarify and integrate internal roles and responsibilities
  • Build relationships with stakeholders with a spirit of ‘robust dialogue’
  • Involve people in the brand emotionally, rather than ‘communicating at’ them

3 Delivery

  • Be obsessed with understanding and improving the detail of the whole consumer experience
  • Understand the business model and how commercial value is created
  • Focus on evaluating how well you are creating value for consumers and the business
  • Build competitive edge by investing in the skills of other people


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