How Sainsbury’s Argos creates a modern marketing culture

The former marketing boss of Sainsbury’s Argos believes breaking down hierarchical barriers and reverse mentoring are key to building modern marketing teams.

sainsburys-store-Reverse mentoring, open boardrooms and breaking hierarchical barriers have been key to ensuring Sainsbury’s Argos moves with the times and lets young talent flourish.

While there was once a “horrible sense” that the most senior individual in an organisation should have all the answers, says Sainsbury’s Argos’s former marketing boss, Gary Kibble, this is no longer the case. In reality, it tends to be the less experienced, younger marketers that have the answers.

“As a marketing leader, it’s more about being much more humble and open to welcome people in,” Kibble said, speaking at the Festival of Marketing today (10 October).

This is why Sainsbury’s opens up its marketing leadership board, which consists of seven people, to a different three people every month, inviting people to come and participate “as an equal”.

“You’re breaking down what historically were those hierarchical barriers,” Kibble said. “The infrastructure we build as organisations is really important to let that [younger talent] flourish.”

Kibble, who left Sainsbury’s Argos in the summer, runs reverse mentoring with graduate trainees, meaning they get to give him feedback, as well as receiving feedback from him.

“You’ve got to lead by example,” he explained. “It’s very interesting to find out what they think about what I do and how I conduct myself – they give much more direct feedback than those that come from traditional hierarchies.”

When I’m recruiting, one of my first questions is what is your purpose? You really see the people who get it and they can clearly articulate not what they’re going to do but why they’re here.

Gary Kibble

Kibble also believes in giving people room to grow, which is underpinned by trust and flexibility.

“I don’t care what hours you keep, what I care about is you deliver the tasks and have a growth mindset,” he said. “That gives this freedom within a framework. You set out these broad parameters that let people explore themselves [so they] grow, learn and develop within that framework.”

Central to all this is purpose, on both an individual and organisational level.

“When I’m recruiting, one of my first questions is, ‘what is your purpose?’,” he highlighted. “You really see the people who get it and they can clearly articulate not what they’re going to do but why they’re here.”

Kibble believes purpose is also key to helping marketers overcome internal resistance to marketing transformation.

“The way I’ve done it in the last two organisations is coming back to the brand purpose. The ability for a marketer to clearly articulate why we exist means people can come with you on the journey,” he explained.

“But to build that brand purpose, the voice of the customer, means it doesn’t suddenly become just a point of view, it becomes the voice of the customer that’s driving it. When you clearly articulate that I find it’s much easier to get momentum towards change in an organisation.”

So what is Kibble’s own purpose as a marketer?

“Success through others,” he concluded. “I’m hugely competitive – I don’t like to win at all costs or create collateral damage – but succeeding is a core part of my purpose.

“But through others is much more important. As I’ve grown and become a leader in an organisation, I’ve realised I don’t actually do anything so for me to be successful I need to do it through others.”

Marketing’s radical transformation

Kibble believes the role of marketing has “changed beyond recognition” since he was a graduate at WHSmith in 1994.  The most radical change is marketing becoming more of a science than an art, he said, meaning the onus is on marketers to ensure creativity is still valued in the boardroom.

“All of the marketing functions I’ve led, we’ve always put data at the heart of decision-making because data equals customer,” Kibble explained. “That is the biggest seismic shift we’ve seen.

But there is a danger when marketing moves from art to science. The value of creativity… certainly when you’re in the boardroom of big organisations, there’s lots of talk about the ROI. We’ve got a job as marketers to maintain high degrees of creativity.”