How Avon’s boss made the jump from CMO to CEO

The path from CMO to chief executive is one that’s rarely trodden, but Avon’s Kristof Neirynck hopes to prove that marketers have the skills to become successful business leaders

Kristof Neirynck Ceo Avon 1

Few chief executives have marketing experience on their CV. When looking at the backgrounds of the CEOs in the FTSE 100, the majority held positions as a COO, CFO or divisional director immediately before taking the top job. None held a chief marketing officer role. Similarly, only 4% of the FTSE 250 CEOs have previous experience as a CMO.

One person that bucks the trend is Kristof Neirynck, CEO of beauty brand Avon, who was promoted from his global CMO role at the start of the year

Despite having previously held management roles at Walgreens Boots Alliance and Procter & Gamble, Neirynck still felt a need to prove his competency at managing a balance sheet before making the step up to chief executive. “When you’re trying to progress into a CEO role, all of a sudden you get branded as just a marketer and people assume you don’t know anything about these things,” he says. 

Why are CMOs overlooked?

There can be a perception that marketers lack the broader business acumen of some of their C-suite peers, which means they are often overlooked when boards consider their next CEO appointment.

“Sometimes it’s self-inflicted,” Neirynck says. “As a marketer, if you’re not focused on the ROI of what you’re delivering and how it’s helping grow the company, then you’re missing the point. You can’t just be focused on the pretty pictures.” 

Having a CMO step up into the CEO role can really benefit some businesses

A lack of understanding of the CMO’s responsibilities is also contributing to this trend. Two-thirds of CMOs said their CEOs were not comfortable with modern marketing, according to one survey by McKinsey. 

While it can be more difficult for marketers to prove their credentials to the board, Neirynck believes it should be a career path that’s open to more people. “Having a CMO step up into the CEO role can really benefit some businesses,” he says. “Particularly in consumer sectors, where an understanding of the brand and the customer is so central to the success of the company.”

Neirynck explains that it took him “quite a lot of effort to get out of the marketer box” and required doing a significant amount of preparation work to convince the board of his abilities. This involved assuming the role of managing director for Avon’s Western Europe market, becoming a non-executive director for the AIM-listed consumer healthcare business Alliance Pharma and taking the Marketing Academy’s fellowship programme, which is designed to help marketing professionals progress to CEO or board roles.

Gaining the additional experience was worthwhile. Becoming a non-executive director, for example, allowed Neirynck to be involved in what he describes as “very different conversations to what you’re having as a manager of a division”. “All of those things helped to prepare me,” he adds.

Adapting to a new role

Neirynck’s first few months as CEO have been spent travelling between Avon’s major markets – with the company’s products sold in more than 70 countries, this has involved a lot of flying. 

“Since January, I’ve probably only been in the UK for a week or two, so it’s been pretty intense,” he says. “I’m in Romania today, next week is Poland and then it is Hungary and the Czech Republic.”

All of a sudden, you have a boardroom you need to manage and they’re not necessarily always aligned

Despite the hectic schedule, he believes it has been a valuable exercise. “As part of the refinements we’re making to the strategy, it’s important to go out to our markets with a fresh pair of eyes to make sure everything’s aligned,” Neirynck says. 

It’s also revealed one of the biggest differences between working as a CMO and chief executive. “When you’re involved in conversations as a CMO, you tend to just focus on the marketing topics, and in between you can zone out and answer some emails,” he adds. “But now you need to focus all the time.”

Transitioning into the CEO role has also involved spending more time on the business strategy, investing in resources and people. He continues: “Culture has also taken a much more prominent role in what I think of.”

But the greatest challenge Neirynck has faced so far has been in regards to stakeholder management. As CMO, he was used to reporting into one person, the chief executive. Now, as CEO himself, “the whole board is your boss,” he explains. “All of a sudden, you have a boardroom you need to manage and they’re not necessarily always aligned.”

Going for growth

As Avon chief executive, Neirynck faces a challenging set of circumstances. Revenues of the consumer goods company have been steadily in decline since 2011, dropping from $9.23bn (£7.36bn) to $2.77bn (£2.21bn) in 2022. Its attempted turnaround, which can be traced back to 2019 when the company was acquired by global cosmetics group Natura, has so far failed to yield the desired results, yet Neirynck remains optimistic. 

He stresses that Avon’s success will be reliant on the strength of the brand, which he says he is still in the process of “reigniting”. This will involve modernising its branding, streamlining its products and ensuring consistency between markets.

You can’t turn around the brand if everybody does whatever they want locally

“Because of the decline, the advertising spend had been repeatedly cut and the business kept on pumping out new innovations, which meant that nothing really stuck.” Neirynck explains. As a result, Avon’s product offering had ballooned, expanding into areas outside of its core beauty offering and varied dramatically from market to market. 

He adds: “We were selling everything from pots and pans, to bed linens, lingerie, pyjamas and smart watches. You can’t turn around the brand if everybody does whatever they want locally.”

Other changes to the strategy involve making adjustments to its direct-selling model, boosting social selling and increasing its in-store presence. Previously, the company had relied on its representatives to sell directly to consumers, but in 2023 Avon opened up new sales avenues, launching on Amazon for the first time as well as putting its products on the shelves of Superdrug and Italian perfume store Naïma.

Although Neirynck stresses that the representative model remains “a core part of our business”, this omnichannel approach will be a key element of Avon’s strategy moving forwards. “It’s a synergistic model, where you get brand awareness benefits from being in those retailers,” he adds.

If Neirynck’s efforts to turn Avon around are successful, he may persuade more boards to look to their marketing chiefs when considering their next CEO.

Top practical tips for CMOs who want to be CEOs

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