Becoming CEO shouldn’t be a marketer’s ultimate career goal

It’s patronising to suggest marketing is just a doorway into more “grown up” or “serious” professions.

Secret MarketerLooking across our low growth economy you might conclude that a lack of business investment aside, there is a lot of very ordinary marketing being done by some very ordinary marketers.

It wasn’t always this way.

There was a time when very bold plans were much more in favour. Big investments were made, long-term thinking celebrated, and aggressive growth plans abounded. This was accompanied by sometimes very flamboyant, yet remarkably successful marketing efforts. Back then marketing wasn’t a thing. Certainly not a sought after career. Companies simply hired agents to build their brands and sell their wares. After a while brand management came into being and slowly but surely in-house teams became the norm.

It wasn’t perfect by any means back then, but there was a different tempo and attitude to creativity and risk taking. Something strange happened in the noughties, and with the increasing professionalisation of marketing, increasing influence of accountants in the boardroom and much greater focus on measurement, something good about the Wild West days of brand building and advertising got lost.

There is a nascent narrative growing like Japanese knotweed, that seems to only celebrate those few for whom more general managerial roles appeal.

Now there is a new insidious development. I’m going to call it out. I’m going to say it: it’s OK to just be a marketer. It’s OK to just have the aspiration to be a brilliant brand person. Do we really need more MDs and CEOs from marketing backgrounds? Does that really have to be the ultimate career goal? It feels like this is becoming the dominant narrative today. Well, I don’t agree. Today more than ever we need brilliant, committed and passionate marketers to drive and lead our discipline and help our businesses grow by understanding our customers better, and better meeting their expectations and desires.

You’ll forgive my outburst, but there is a nascent narrative growing like Japanese knotweed, that seems to only celebrate those few for whom more general managerial roles appeal. I’m thrilled for them, to each their own. But, my interest is brilliant marketing practice and helping aspiring marketing leaders from all walks of life find a rewarding and game changing career in our industry. Marketing should never be seen as some foothold or doorway into more so-called grown up or serious professions. How patronising.

What every marketer should refocus on in challenging times

The power of marketing

When done well, marketing and indeed brand thinking, is the driving force in some of the most successful commercial ventures in society today: helping to create wealth and prosperity. To denigrate it’s practitioners as something less majestic or important is to be beguiled by the left brain.

Like the accountant’s marketing plan – you know, month to month, quarter to quarter, cost and revenue, cost and revenue, justify, justify, justify, measure, measure, measure – it might look good in theory, as part of a grand plan or in turnaround businesses, but in practice this kind of approach on its own impedes extraordinary long-term growth. The kind of growth that can only come sustainably over a long period through commitment to a big and audacious goal. The kind of growth that requires risk taking, vision, investment and an unusually creative endeavour. The kind of growth that will only come through a creative expression which can unlock an emotional connection with consumers built over years, coupled with frictionless pricing and ubiquitous distribution.

Over the past 20 years or so, almost in parallel with the arrival of digitisation and greater access to marketing education in universities, the marketing brain has become more rational and far far less creative. Great brands are rarely made by logic alone. Quite often they leverage the magic of emotional connection in product design, pricing approach and communication. It is this that sets them apart. You’ll rarely achieve this if your main chance is to move up and out of marketing into something “grown up” and “serious” after your obligatory stint.

Tell tale signs of a would-be CEO marketer:

  • Their career will have started in something other than marketing – accountancy, consulting, sales or maybe commercial development
  • Their CV will be a well constructed patchwork quilt of short stints across a broad portfolio of disciplines often in one category
  • They will be big advocates of ROI, placing a premium on efficiency
  • In conversation the thrust will be data driven with proven use cases. They will measure everything and love a good benchmark. They unintentionally celebrate conformity
  • Their knowledge of how advertising works and brands grow will often be superficial and biased to their own personal experience, their partner’s, or their learning through business administration
  • They will be big fans of in-housing (for greater efficiency and control) and naturally apprehensive about those mavericks at advertising or creative agencies. Ironically paying no interest to their media buyers or the efficacy of those contracts despite the scale of pass through costs.
  • Their campaign preference will be to talk about products, features and attributes
  • They will be masters of the short-term uplift.

This is all well and good in small doses, and it may help the specialists sometimes, but marketing is really for the brand builders, the designers and the magicians. Those fearless few who will take a risk and do the opposite, not because the data says so, but because their gut tells them to base their decision making on insight not just data.

So, my budding corporate colleagues, pack up your colouring pencils, invest in your smart casual office wear. We wish you good luck in your ascension to the ranks of the great and the good. We’re glad you have had your fun, please don’t forget your friends, but I’m sticking with the wild ones, and in truth, we’re probably better off without you.

Our anonymous marketer has spent years working for big brands in large organisations. They have seen what you have seen, been left scratching their head at the decisions (or indecision) of others, had the same fights. They have also seen the possibility and opportunity of marketing. In this regular series, our marketer on the inside will unpick the failings, articulate the frustrations and speak up for marketers everywhere.