Corporate communications chiefs are increasingly gaining the upper hand over marketing directors in the struggle for control of brands.
Just last week, Marketing Week reported that oil giant Shell was looking to put its marketing unit under the auspices of corporate affairs chief Roxanne Decyk following the retirement of veteran marketing boss Raoul Pinnell (MW last week).
This followed a similar move at BP, where the brand team was brought under the control of group vice-president of communications and external affairs Mark Ware after the exit of Tom Vaughan, who was general manager of brand and marketing communications. The brand team was not best pleased with the shift, according to insiders, as it appeared to downgrade the importance of marketing.
Last year, BSkyB reshuffled its team after chief marketing officer Jon Florsheim left, handing brand marketing responsibility to communications chief Matthew Anderson, a former Ogilvy public relations boss. Anderson, who is understood to be a favoured executive of BSkyB chief executive James Murdoch, has been instrumental in spearheading Sky’s fight against Virgin Media over the recent carriage fees dispute.
What unites these businesses is that they are company brands facing serious regulatory issues. Corporate affairs is in the ascendancy because the central task is not so much targeting consumers as shoring up relations with governments. Oil companies depend on political relationships for drilling rights, while Sky is under the regulatory spotlight over its acquisition of a stake in ITV and its grip on football rights.
John Butler, chief executive of direct marketing agency Harrison Troughton Wunderman, believes companies choose between a corporate or marketing-led strategy according to the issues they face. "Companies make decisions on corporate affairs based on the strength of the individual brands," he says. "If the brands are stronger than the social issues, you stay in marketing. If it is the other way round, the tendency is to go for a public affairs-led strategy."
The march of these silver-tongued corporate advocates who are equally at ease chatting with investors and politicians, dealing with pressure groups or handling a tough television interview has gathered pace over the past two decades.
Paul Barber, who has been both marketing chief and communications boss at a number of top companies and is now executive director of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, says: "When I started in marketing in the 1980s, PR or corporate communications was considered just one of the promotional elements of marketing. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, a battle began as to whether marketing should report to corporate communications or vice-versa. It has been a matter of contention for some years."
Corporate communications bosses have often smooth-talked their way into becoming the boss’s sidekick. Conservative leader David Cameron, possibly the next prime minister, was corporate communications boss at Carlton Communications, and has been described as a "boardroom lackey" to chairman Michael Green.
But it should be remembered that the most successful brands of recent times have been headed by chief executive and marketing director double acts. Tesco’s Terry Leahy and Tim Mason, for example, Marks & Spencer’s Stuart Rose and Steve Sharp, P&G’s Lafley and Stengel and Toyota GB’s Graham Smith and Mike Moran.
Taking your eye off consumers
It may come as a blow for marketers to be out-manoeuvred by PR people selling arguments rather than products. As trouble-shooting marketing director Rob Rees says: "Marketing is one of those jobs where you’ve got to grow the business and create something out of nothing, increasing sales from a fixed pot of money. It is about doing it through the eyes of the consumer, and giving them what they want, not what you think they want."
Where the main task is persuading consumers rather than politicians, marketers will usually be in the driving seat. But as markets become ever more politicised, corporate affairs bosses will be vying to get their hands on the steering wheel.