Sir Terry Leahy: ‘Transition from marketer to CEO becoming easier’

Former Tesco boss Sir Terry Leahy believes it is getting easier to move from a marketing role to CEO as long as marketers are prepared to take risks. 


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Former Tesco CEO Sir Terry Leahy says marketers must take risks and spot innovation to take on the top job.

Leahy joined Tesco in 1979 as a marketer and was the first marketing director to sit on the supermarket’s board in 1992, before taking on the CEO role in 1997.

Speaking to Marketing Week at the Marketing Society’s Creative For Commerce conference in London today (21 November), Leahy said that the rise of digital technology and the subsequent changing needs of consumers means that marketers are now better positioned than ever to take on senior leadership roles. However, he cautions that they must be willing to take risks, even in a recession, and produce new and innovative marketing techniques.

“If marketing people position themselves at the nexus between digital technology and consumers and see the opportunities that arise from that in terms of new products and services, they are the people who can change the trajectory of a business and become the CEO.

“But they have to find their way back to true marketing, beginning with customer and their fast-changing lives, and break out of the strait jacket of just peddling their existing products and services using fairly narrow, fairly old marketing techniques and tricks,” he added.

While at Tesco, Leahy introduced the Clubcard, which he said on stage is more famous around the world than the Tesco brand. It was the first time example of the use of big data by a retailer to manage its relationship with customers.

He admitted that he “stole” the idea from Co-op, where he worked previously and which had a paper membership scheme.  He added that when he first took the idea to his bosses at Tesco, they rejected it, but he kept working on it and when he went back with a better plan they green lighted the project.

He advised marketers now to think creatively and try to see the world in a different way in order to find the next innovation and not be afraid to make mistakes and fail as long it is leading along the right track. In particular, Leahy believes the use of mobile and real-time marketing are areas ripe for innovation.

 “The availability of digital marketing incentives is really exciting because businesses for some time have been able to identify real customers and know something about what they’re interested in. But we haven’t had the same digital ability to respond. Now you can.

“Through mobile you can bring them into a loyalty programme, offer them an incentive and give them new information that is tailored to what they’re interested in. And it can be delivered to them on their mobile instantly at the right time and in the right location and they can redeem there and then, making them much more engaged,” he told Marketing Week.

With the UK coming out of recession, Leahy believes now is the time to return to the “first principle” of marketing and reward loyal customers using new technology. Plus he warned against the marketing industry becoming too inward and failing to focus on the customer and what they want.

“The development in Christmas marketing this year is a nice one because they are creative and they are about the brand attributes of the business. But they need to be a bit careful because it is the industry copying each other rather than actually looking out at the customer and taking the customer as the lead,” he added.



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