Why your chief marketer should be at the top table

As a long-time ad man and branding obsessive, I’d like to think that the general perception of marketing as being the “fluffy” part of a business has truly died a death.

Time was when the marketing team (if your business was lucky enough to have one) was often seen as little more than the promotions department, creating pretty brochures and handing out balloons to potential customers at launch events or exhibitions.

In the overall chain of command, marketing frequently occupied a lowly position, perhaps viewed as a support function to the Sales team or some offshoot of a customer services department.

It was also not uncommon for marketing to be seen as something that happened at the end of the business process. “Hey guys, we’ve developed this super dooper new widget. We’re manufacturing it in China, packaging it up in Germany and selling it by the caseload through retail hardware stores. Guess we’d better think about marketing it now.”

By now, I hope we can all accept that marketing belongs firmly at the other end of the chain. That market research and market insights should drive business development, that your proposition should be totally customer-centric and that it’s only by understanding your customers that you can deliver what they want.

So, if we can agree that marketing is a fundamental and key element of building a business, why are there still relatively few marketing executives still making it to CEO level? Or even getting representation on the Board?

Historically it was frequently cited that marketing executives didn’t make the grade because they weren’t “doing numbers” and numbers are what boards like most. With return on investment often difficult to calculate, marketers were more likely to talk about campaign rationales and branding – typically construed as “softer” aspects to the business that didn’t warrant discussion at the top level.

Today marketers have more numbers than you can shake a stick at. Customer data is accruing at an unprecedented rate, sales and website usage can be analysed not only in intricate detail but in real time and artificial intelligence is able to spot trends and potential opportunities before we even realise they are taking place.

This puts marketers in a truly prized position –not only do they have sight of customers and, hopefully, an in-depth understanding of the company’s brand proposition, but they have the information to see what change is needed and where innovation is driving future customer behaviour. In some ways, it is irrelevant how well the last campaign did, it’s what the business needs to do next that the marketer brings to the board table.

As the customer champion, marketers provide insights into consumer thinking and engagement that traditional financial, operational or risk/compliance Board managers never can. Marketers can provide the strategy for business growth and identify how brands need to evolve and innovate to stay ahead of the game.

The tide is now turning and it is notable that some of the most successful companies such as Amazon and Facebook have marketing representation on their boards.

There have also been some key appointments of former marketers to CEOs – CEO Today Magazine has reported that Tesco’s chief executive was previously marketing manager at Unilever and M&S CEO was a marketer at British Airways and McDonalds.

Writing in the same magazine, Jamie Anderson, of Adobe company Marketo, said: “Today, with the confluence of technology, business and social trends, CEOs with marketing experience have not just become a possibility, but an imperative in many enterprises….. Marketing’s role in the boardroom continues to strengthen, as it continues to hold the key to understanding customer behaviour.”

But while things may be changing at the top, there are still many smaller businesses that haven’t moved on from the last century and I still come across marketing teams who are struggling to be heard at board level – or whose well-crafted plans are sometimes simply overruled by the CEO on some kind of personal whim.

To those marketing teams I would say you need to fight for your corner – as brand and customer champions, you have key insights into the potential for growth in your business and it is your role to bring it to your board’s attention. Use the data, use the numbers and show how good marketing positively impacts the bottom line.

And to those CEOs who still regard the marketing team as the people “who do the colouring in”, wake up, you’re at risk of missing the biggest trick in your book.