Five common traits that make a marketing leader

From positivity and clarity to the need for humility, speaking to a number of top marketing leaders has revealed five common traits that all possess.

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In 2010, I sat as a fresh-faced undergrad in an entrepreneurship module at university. I remember the darkness of the room. The slightly eccentric nature of the chap teaching us. And his warnings against identifying specific traits as predictors of great leaders. Since then, the evidence behind the diversity of thought and background in leadership environments has grown beyond all doubt.

Accepting and supporting those thoughts, I’ve also had a wild couple of months that have shifted my perspective on how I approach marketing roles. And perhaps life in general.

Over this time, I’ve sat down with some incredible industry leaders in Sir John Hegarty (cofounder of BBH), Ellie Norman (chief communications officer of Man Utd), Jo Lane (chief product officer of Tony’s Chocolonely), David McQueen (executive coach) and Mark Barry (managing director of Hubspot EMEA) for The Marketing Meetup webinars/podcast.

What was both striking and remarkable was how many character traits they shared, despite their very different contexts.

While these traits might not be predictors of success, I thought it worthy of sharing five observations of traits that consistently appeared across these wonderful marketing leaders. They changed my outlook, so I hope the way they carried themselves helps you too.

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The global headlines being what they are, positivity is not necessarily easy to come by.

A comment that hit me right in the chest was from Mark Barry, who said we have to believe our best days are ahead of us.

While Mark was speaking about his decision to take his job at Hubspot, and how he had taken a similar attitude to taking a role at Stripe – a different world opened up in front of my eyes. The idea that things can improve and the conviction to somewhat will that into existence felt powerful.

Ellie Norman mirrored this, especially when discussing a challenge. She visibly came from the mindset of ‘how can we make a great job of this’, rather than seeing the difficulty as something that could drive her down. I admired that.

I’ll be the first to admit I don’t always carry those feelings.

Part of that is mental health-related, but part of it is never trying to take this on as a character trait. Since listening to these folks, the sky has seemed a bit bluer, and things a touch more surmountable.

While we live in the real world, approaching things to seek the positive outcome rather than avoiding the negative has been head-shifting. I appreciated that.


The second trait was clarity about why they’re doing what they’re doing—either in mission or principles for what makes great marketing.

Jo Lane from Tony’s spoke eloquently of the mission Tony’s is on: to end slavery in cocoa production. While there were many exciting things around the edge of this, the conversation consistently got pulled back to this place.

In a company where it would be easy to be confused about the goal, as they have both social and commercial objectives, this stood out to me as a clear example of a marketer at the top of the game.

The best leaders I’ve worked with haven’t just been smart; they’ve been good people who care about other people too.

Similarly, Mark Barry was unshakable in his answers when quizzed on AI or marketing tactics. He always returned to the customer and what the customer wanted. Almost every question returned to this first principle about the customer.

Not only is this good marketing, but this clarity also creates a real calmness when discussing marketing topics that can be quite emotionally charged, such as AI. Yes, things might change, but at the heart of what we do is the customer. Mark had clarity, and that focus kept his eyes on the main thing that mattered.

For me, this all made my shoulders relax a touch. It’s easy to get caught up in the swirl of change: but as Jeff Bazos famously points out: focus on what is going to stay the same in 10 years – not just what is going to change tomorrow.

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In his book ‘Hegarty on Advertising,’ Sir John Hegarty discussed fearlessness as a necessary ingredient for creativity. It was clear that this was part of his DNA.

My favourite moment from him on the topic, however, was when quizzed by a member of the community on what happens if you have a bad campaign. There was an almost visible shrugging off of those moments from Sir John – who pointed to the idea that we shouldn’t look back to yesterday if that was a bad day and instead look to create the best work we can today.

Jo shared this attitude differently. When quizzed on some of Tony’s more ‘pointed’ campaigns against their competitors – there was an unabashed conviction they were doing the right thing, and therefore there was little to fear when calling out the incumbent companies.

In their different ways – creativity and purpose – both leaders shared the idea that if something is important it should be strived for without fear. There might be bumps and hard moments along the way, but that is the journey.


Curiosity also surfaced in different ways in the various leaders.

Sir John made an often repeated but still important point: find your inspiration outside of marketing. Have a curiosity about the world. That’s how you create extraordinary work.

In a different example of curiosity, Ellie Norman pointed to her desire to level up on AI – a skill-based inquisition.

And David McQueen spoke to a natural curiosity in self and other human beings. Inspecting and questioning others to get the most from yourself and them.

Even as I write this piece, I can begin to see how these traits begin to combine:

When approaching challenges, these folks assume a good outcome, know why they’re doing it, and because of that conviction, can walk into the situation without fear, but instead a curiosity of ‘how can I make this better, or help others be better?’. That is useful.


Finally, it was wonderful how each individual showed up with an attitude of being polite, wanting to give, valuing the time of others, and having an awareness that they don’t know everything. There was humility in how each turned out for the community, which helped people buy into them.

Two quick examples: Ellie Norman asked for a pre-interview chat to understand the audience – she did the homework to make sure people got the best out of the session. And David McQueen said “I can do 10 more minutes” when it was clear there were more questions to answer from the community.

David also had some of the audience in tears with the phrase “I deserve to be here”. Humility in this instance showed up as empathy, with David expressing experience in knowing that not everyone’s context is the same – and even if he felt courageous, other people may not.

The best leaders I’ve worked with haven’t just been smart; they’ve been good people who care about other people too.

Wrapping up

Not for one second do I think every person has to have all of these traits to be a successful leader.

But it was interesting how each person showed up with these characteristics in different measures and ways.

I walked out of the interviews feeling lighter, empowered and more positive. That’s a gift. Perhaps the most extraordinary gift leaders can give folks they reach. Five interviews changed my outlook – I hope they help you too.

Joe Glover is founder of The Marketing Meetup