Making it to the top

Six chief executives who started their careers in the marketing department lay out a five-step plan marketers should follow if they want to reach the top of the corporate ladder.

  • Click here to read how CEOs got to the top and what they would have done differently
  • Ian Filby is the chief executive at DFS, after having had roles such retail brand development director and trading director at Alliance Boots Click here to read about his view from the top


Some of the world’s largest brands, including Coca-Cola and McDonald’s have recently given marketers senior roles in the boardroom. The fast food giant’s UK arm, as well as ING Direct, and Quorn all have former marketers as their chief executive, while Reckitt Benckiser’s incoming global CEO Rakesh Kapoor has run marketing for the company in various parts of the world. Coca-Cola, meanwhile, has recently promoted former chief marketing officer Beatriz Perez to vice-president.

However, these appointments appear to contradict the results of a survey released in June that revealed almost three-quarters of chief executives think marketers don’t have business credibility because they fail to measure the success of their campaigns.

Even those that have reached the top warn that very few marketers have the skills to become a chief executive. As Merlin Entertainments chief executive Nick Varney – once a marketing director himself – puts it: “There are very few marketers below the senior level who get to see the whole picture. And even at a senior level, few marketers carry the responsibility for profit and loss.”

So, how can marketers become CEOs? Marketing Week asks chief executives and managing directors who began their careers in the marketing department for a five-point plan to help others climb to the top of the corporate ladder.

Understand the enemy - and make them your friend

Marketers need to understand how people inside and outside the business view their department. This allows them to be seen as the authority on the customer, rather than someone solely associated with creating advertising.

Kevin Brennan: from marketing director at Kellogg’s UK…

Kevin Brennan, chief executive of Quorn and former marketing director at Kellogg’s UK, says: “Getting a finance director or sales director’s perspective of where marketing fits into the organisation is important. It builds empathy and a broader understanding of where marketing fits into a business and how the heads of other functions would see it.”

It is also vital to gain a broader understanding of the role of other directors and heads of departments within your business. Asking regular questions about what else is happening in the organisation will help marketers plug any gaps in their knowledge about the general business environment.

… To chief executive at Quorn

Peter Shaw, chief executive of DP Poland – which runs Domino’s Pizza in the country – was once international marketing director at Poland’s largest coffee chain, Coffeeheaven, and is head of his own consultancy, Brand Catalyst. He says marketers need to ask the most basic questions of other business functions to gain better understanding and offer external insight.

“You should be very honest and say ’this is not my core discipline’ before asking basic, maybe quite naïve questions,” he says.

“If you know a function very well and you have been educated along a particular path, you get into a habit. You might use certain language and acronyms. If you are not coming from that background, you can challenge others and it will give you a clarity of insight about the way a business is working,” Shaw adds.

Richard Doe, chief executive of ING Direct UK, who was promoted from marketing director at the firm last December, says cross-department questioning should be a formal discipline for any organisation, but warns that marketers need to go beyond very basic questions.

“If you are in a board meeting, everyone can ask one question of their other directors,” he says. “The key test is whether you can ask a second question. As a marketing director, you need to be a bit of a banker as well – understanding how the bank makes money, risk management and the finance side is absolutely critical.”

Clear Channel chief executive Matthew Dearden, a former BT marketer, also warns: “Marketers can suffer from being seen to only consider interim metrics. Awareness and brand preference are important, but where marketers risk letting themselves down is forgetting the ’so what’ for the business. There is a danger of looking as though you are focused on the internal metric, rather than the external, which is going to help the company sell more.”

Delving into new areas can mean marketers must force themselves to do things they are not naturally inclined to do, according to Ian Filby, chief executive of DFS and former trading director at Alliance Boots, who marketed the No 7 and 17 brands. “My advice is to get out of your comfort zone and push people above you. Tell them that you are hungry to get on and make sure you don’t just keep doing what your specialism is.

“I got all my learning and experience from being forced to do roles that I didn’t think were the natural next step,” he says (see View From the Top, below).

Learn from spies – remember to be nosy

Marketers hoping to become chief executives need to ensure they don’t simply become knowledgeable about their own area. They need to be extremely inquisitive about what else is going on elsewhere in the organisation and then use this to their own advantage.

/k/m/i/match250.jpg Managing director Karl Gregory’s focus is on return in investment

Karl Gregory, managing director and former marketing director of, says: “In larger organisations, if marketers become an expert in one area, it can be very difficult for them to move. Being naturally curious about every part of the business is a mindset that assists people very well. It’s not so much a skill-set as a mindset to be curious about why and how our product works, in particular how people convert from membership into a paying customer. I was always interested in the financials and in our share price.”

Gregory says adopting this way of working makes it easier to move into a role that requires a more holistic view of the business. He always reads detailed financial reports on the business but admits: “I suspect most people don’t.”

Dearden at Clear Channel says the advantage of a marketing role is that it tends to allow regular access to other departments. “Because marketing is so broad, executives often have access to more information about the business than other functions. Marketers must take advantage of this opportunity,” he adds.

ING Direct: Chief executive Richard Doe is a former marketing director at the bank

ING Direct’s Doe says he has always looked beyond his current role or industry for inspiration. “I’ve always leaned towards a bigger picture role. You have to encompass everything beyond what your specific role is about. If a marketing director only focuses on that role and doesn’t get under the skin of the rest of the business, particularly in how it makes money, then that is going to be a bit of a barrier,” he says.

Doe adds that being a member of networking group Wavelength, which organises events in a variety of sectors to help leaders see how other businesses work, aids him in broadening his own horizons.

Learn how to make difficult decisions early on

It might seem strange to look for areas of trouble or confusion within businesses, but if marketers want the top job they need to make the most difficult of corporate decisions. Clear Channel’s Dearden says that once someone becomes a chief executive, they are expected to know all the answers.

“You do find yourself with a tough decision to make and it comes to the point where you would have wanted to look at your MD or CEO and everyone is looking at you,” he warns.

Clear Channel: CEO Matthew Deardon started his career as an assistant brand manager

Dearden adds: “I don’t wish to sound arrogant, but it struck a chord when Barack Obama said that everything he deals with is extremely difficult and that, by definition, if it was easy, someone would have solved it before it got to his desk.”

Marketers who think about the decisions their CEO will need to make further up the command chain can make themselves seem a logical successor when the time comes.

ING Direct’s Doe says: “No-one wants to spend their time resolving problems. Solving them quickly is what makes the difference.”

Surround yourself with people who know more than you

The path to the top job cannot be walked alone. Marketers need to ensure that they recruit staff who can assist in improving the reputation and capability of their department.

“Growing your own staff is a very powerful way of running a business – that is a mantra I’ve lived by,” says Gregory at “David Ogilvy once said: ’Hire people who are bigger than you and you’ll become a complete giant.’

“From a young age, I was hiring people older or more experienced than me, and possibly better in some areas. I have never shied away from that.”

If a marketing director only focuses on that role and doesn’t get under the skin of the rest of the business, particularly in how it makes money, then that is going to be a bit of a barrier

But Gregory adds that not everyone he encounters in business can see this is a good style of management. “I must admit that whenever I talk to people about that, I get blank faces or people saying it is an odd way of pushing myself. But it is the one that works for me,” he claims.

DP Poland’s Shaw agrees that no executive should be nervous of seeming to know less than their colleagues. He argues that it is more important to know how to leverage everybody’s skills to find the best solution for the company.

“A chief executive of a large publicly listed company once told me that when he is in a meeting, most of the other people there will often know more about a subject than he does. So my role is to make judgements and decisions and help the business function,” says Shaw.

Working on the principle that 80% of a business is fairly simple and the remaining 20% fairly complicated, Shaw warns against trying to handle everything yourself. Learning good delegation skills and recognising where people can assist with their superior skills is all part of learning to manage effectively from the top.

“You don’t have to be an expert in everything. You need to find lots of great experts and people you trust. Sometimes it won’t work but the thing is not to take the whole thing on your shoulders. But it is easy to do – I do it and get stressed. There is good reason why it is called a company – because there is more than one person,” he says.

Don’t make becoming CEO your only goal

Not every marketer knows at the beginning of their career that they will one day hope to become a CEO. Many find that once they have managed the brand of a business through marketing it, they then want to progress to general management.

“I didn’t say ’I will be CEO’,” says ING Direct’s Doe. “But a lot of the time I’ve felt like I’m moving forward. And every time you get a new role, you think ’OK this is it, this is where I plateau out’ and then typically after a few years you think ’I might have a bit more potential’.”

Don’t make becoming CEO your only goal

For DP Poland’s Shaw, running a business wasn’t his intention, either. He recalls: “I came through a classic marketing services route – market research, new product development, innovation. I was interested in new ideas and developing businesses in a fairly entrepreneurial way but I never had a great desire to be a great leader. But then circumstances arise where you are encouraged by someone.”

While Clear Channel’s Dearden says he was always keen to run a company, he too thinks it is important to remember that he found success in lots of areas before taking the top job in his organisation. “It’s not the only thing I’ve wanted to do. I’ve had roles involving commercial, operations and marketing. I’ve enjoyed them all and would happily do the right functional role again.”

It appears that the process of becoming a CEO should be about gaining the skills that are necessary to run a business, rather than setting your heart on a particular job title. Quorn’s Brennan says: “Along the way I was making sure there were opportunities to build general management capabilities. When I was in Australia I was also the general manager for New Zealand. It is a small market but it gave me some experience in that field. Towards the end of my time at Kellogg, I was general manager for snacks, so I was constantly making sure that I was broadening my skills.”

The debate about which group of executives should own the natural succession path to the CEO’s position is unlikely to cease any time soon, but those marketers who follow the advice laid out by the leaders who were once their peers may one day find that they move up to take top place themselves.

How they got to the top


Richard Doe
Chief executive and former marketing director, ING Direct UK

“My chief executive indicated to me at the beginning of last year that I had CEO potential. We talked about what I should do to make myself ready, but the opportunity for me came up sooner [than all those things could happen] as he moved on to our business in Turkey.”

What they would have done differently: “I don’t have any major regrets. If you take something positive from it, then anything is good experience. When I have changed jobs in different organisations, I have sometimes looked back and thought it was fantastic, and other times I have left thinking ’I’m not sure I got too much out of that’. But as long as you try to make decisions for the best reasons, it is hard to regret them, even if it doesn’t go as you had hoped.”


Kevin Brennan
Chief executive, Quorn and former marketing director, Kellogg’s UK

“I saw marketing as something I enjoyed and so I wanted to progress as far as possible. I made sure along the way that there were opportunities to build general management capabilities. I did an economics degree and have an MBA. I’ve always liked the financial as well as the marketing side and I was very comfortable moving towards a CEO role.”

What they would have done differently: “The biggest thing I wonder is whether it would be good to have got into a full-on general management role earlier because I absolutely love it. I’m lucky with a business such as Quorn, which has huge potential globally. I know we can turn it into a $1bn opportunity.”


Ian Filby
Chief executive, DFS and former trading director at Alliance Boots

“The change from trading director at Boots to chief executive at Nectar and then at DFS has felt comfortable. As a trading director [at Boots], my belief was that you have to get a good team around you, ask questions of them and come up with solutions. That approach is also powerful as a CEO because it helps you to get the best out of the team around you.”

What they would have done differently: “You can get sucked into a belief that if you are very good at what you are doing, people will want to move you into bigger roles and you will move up the ladder. The danger can be that you get pigeonholed as being really good at one particular thing and people start convincing themselves that your talent will not translate into more lateral roles.”


Matthew Dearden
Chief executive, Clear Channel and former marketing director at BT

“You increase the leadership and potentially dial down the management when becoming CEO. If you are running a department, you have to be good at that already and you have to be very conscious as a CEO to change the mix. I started as an assistant brand manager at Procter & Gamble, where the importance of leadership was ingrained into me.”

What they would have done differently: “I think it is really important to be yourself.It doesn’t work if you are trying to be someone else. I look at people I admire, take the lessons from them and see how I could apply them to myself. We have all made mistakes along the way and anyone who denies it either hasn’t got very far or is lying. One thing you have to do if you want to progress is to have the confidence to try new things, even if they go wrong.”


Peter Shaw
Chief executive, DP Poland and former marketing director, Coffeeheaven

“There is no particular business specialism that leads to becoming a CEO; you could be in finance or operations. Marketing is as good a route as any. A disproportionate number of financial people become CEOs, however, perhaps because they are closer to the organisation’s commercial realities. But you need to be excited by the overall business.”

What they would have done differently: “I would have been braver. So many businesses are run by finance people, who have become CEOs because they speak the language of the investors. Marketers need to be brave enough to convey the point that if you don’t get the consumer end right, a business is not going to work. A good marketer should make a very good manager of a business and shouldn’t feel they are any less a candidate because they haven’t come up through a more commercial route.”


Karl Gregory
Managing director and former marketing director,

“I was marketing director for about eight or nine months before becoming managing director. When I joined, I had it in the back of my mind to move into a management role within an organisation that is very marketing led. My focus as a marketer has always been about return on investment.”

View from the top

Ian Filby took over from Lord Kirkham as chief executive of DFS in September 2010, from an interim CEO role at Groupe Aeroplan, which owns Nectar. He previously held marketing roles as retail brand development director and trading director at Alliance Boots.

“Marketing is often interpreted as being about sexy advertising but I started my career as a retail marketing graduate at Boots, so I had a broader view. Pricing, promotional dynamics and brand positioning have been my bread and butter throughout my career.

Marketing helped me in a number of ways. There are a couple of truisms in retail. The first is that if you don’t underpin your strategic direction, then you will miss some key things. And the same is true if you don’t have a good understanding of the customer and their journey.

I don’t believe I was ever someone who was into the minutiae of what every member of staff was doing

In my case, 29 years of getting inside the minds of consumers and customers [through marketing] is absolutely key. When you are chief executive, you will be setting the strategic direction of the company, so in the end it’s all got to be underpinned by a thorough understanding of customers and consumers.

If you run everything by cost management alone and you want a return on every single element of your expenditure, you will miss that instinctive intuitive element that tells you when you’ve got to take a risk.

The great thing about being in the commercial marketing world is being sold to and selling products and ideas. Therefore, you have to be comfortable with visions and ideas, either creating them or receiving them.

I don’t believe I was ever someone who was into the minutiae of what every member of staff was doing. I was more of a mentor and sounding board for them to play back to me the progress they thought they were making on the bigger picture.

I would describe myself as someone who tries to get the best out of my team: optimistic, cheerful and humorous. Perhaps I come across as disarmingly friendly, but I’ve always been very focused on delivering the next set of results.

Since taking over as CEO at DFS, I’ve retained all my senior managers and gently introduced some people. And I have never been into bullying or mind games. I like to see myself as a coach or mentor and I’m also hugely analytical. It’s my job to help people solve their problems and develop insight.”



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View from the top – Ian Filby

Josie Allchin

Ian Filby took over from Lord Kirkham as chief executive of DFS in September 2010, from an interim CEO role at Groupe Aeroplan, which owns Nectar. He previously held marketing roles as retail brand development director and trading director at Alliance Boots.


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