TfL’s marketing boss: Marketers must create a customer focus to become CEOs

The thorny old questions are doing the rounds again: should there be more marketers on company boards? Why aren’t there more CMOs becoming CEOs? After all, customers are at the heart of all businesses, and marketers best understand customers, ergo all companies should be run by marketers. So what is stopping them?

Marketing is a wide-ranging discipline. It is both a way of thinking and operating, as well as a term used to describe an increasingly broad range of jobs, skills and capabilities, including advertising, marcomms, brand management, sponsorship and a new media.

However, not all marketers want or are suited to CEO roles. The job encompasses much more than that of a marketer, even in the most customer-orientated business. The skills of a CMO are useful but a CEO needs to manage an entire business and deliver a compelling leadership vision. An aspect that often gets overlooked is whether marketers are consistently good enough for senior board and CMO roles. Marketing is essential to business success but that doesn’t necessarily mean a marketer is capable or suitable for a board role.

One of the most frequent charges levelled against marketers is that they lack accountability. A recent Marketing Week study found that nearly 89% of finance executives couldn’t estimate their company’s return from marketing activity, and only around 40% had confidence in marketers to make good commercial decisions. Perceptions matter. There is a widely held view that marketers place emphasis on outputs, not outcomes, and so are concerned with a narrow set of issues. This has given rise to the epithet that marketing is little more than ‘the colouring-in department’.

These are, of course, generalisations but the breadth of marketing’s remit means it is relatively easy to find support for this critique. So what is the way forward for marketing and ambitious marketers? It has often been said that marketers need to talk ‘the language of the board’; that is growth, cash flows and shareholder value. The growth in data availability provides further opportunities to do this. This isn’t to say marketing should be subsumed by financial metrics but marketers need to show they can relate marketing activity to the wider business agenda when making a case for investment.

Marketers should be the real customer champions. Many talk about this but don’t practice it beyond communication channels. You need to understand and inform the entire customer journey and every touchpoint, which means knowing about more than just your field.

Marketers also need to get more involved in business strategy and be able to show where markets are headed; highlighting sources of future growth is a way of doing this. Good marketing plans – those that incorporate all aspects of the customer experience – serve
to integrate a range of functions. The business collaborates and marketing can, and should, orchestrate and benefit from the process.

Of course this is easier said than done. In the ‘realpolitik’ of many businesses, power bases are seen as important, which is why many measure the value of their role by the size of their department, budget and outputs. At the end of the day, a career choice might need to be made: some businesses support a marketing and customer focus, some may be persuaded to adopt one – and you should seize that opportunity – but others don’t feel they need it.

You need to decide what type of marketer you want to be, but you’re more likely to progress if you can balance strong, strategic marketing capabilities with an understanding of wider business needs.

Chris McLeod will be speaking at the Festival of Marketing in November. For more details see

Vision_100_adobe_breakerThis is part of a series of columns written by our Vision 100 inductees, who will share their experiences, best practice and thoughts on what makes visionary marketers and organisations. Marketing Week’s Vision 100 in association with Adobe is an exclusive club of the brightest, best and most visionary executives.

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