The companies on the FTSE 100 are an eclectic bunch. There are household names such as Tesco, Barclays and BT, alongside less well-known brands including chemicals firm Croda International and mining company Fresnillo. But if there’s one thing they have in common it’s that none of the people who lead these businesses used to head up the marketing function.
A dive into the data on the backgrounds of these CEOs finds that, before taking on the top job, 32% were divisional directors, 14% CEOs and 12% COOs or CFOs. None were a CMO before and only two – Stefan Bomhard of Imperial Brands and Liam Condon of Johnson Matthey – have spent any time in the marketing department.
CEOs of FTSE 100 businesses are a small sample size – there are examples of former marketing bosses leading other businesses, while David Lewis, the former boss of FTSE stalwart Tesco who left in September 2020, had a marketing background. But it is a path much less well trodden than that from CFO or chief operating officer to CEO.
Why is this? To try to answer this question, we convened a panel of experts at Cannes Lions and in association with WARC and the Marketing Society. On the panel were:
Harriet de Swiet
MD and Europe lead for the marketing practice, Accenture Song
CEO, The Marketing Society
UK CMO, HSBC
Are you surprised at how few FTSE CEOs have a marketing background?
I’m not. I dug out some recent Accenture research that I would love to say excited me but actually kind of horrified me. First, 77% of advertisers said they feel pressure to prove ROI. I want to know what the other 23% are doing if they don’t feel pressure to prove ROI. And then, more worryingly, only 17% of day-to-day decision-makers consider ROI a top marketing objective. If we’re not obsessed with driving ROI, then we’ve got no right to be in the C-suite, let alone become CEOs.
I think it’s a shame more businesses don’t see the value of marketers. The CEOs I know with a marketing background are driving businesses that are customer-centric, which have growth and humanity at the heart, and which really understand the power of marketing to be able to evolve businesses smartly. I hope for the future of business it will change.
I’m disappointed but unsurprised. The bit that always amuses me is that most of the C-suite think they can tell me what a good ad looks like! But, joking aside, businesses are trying to build a customer-centric culture that really understands what people want and need, that is core to driving great business and is fundamentally what we as marketers try to do. I think it’s a real shame that more people don’t have some form of marketing experience.
But it’s also incumbent on marketers to bring marketing to the C-suite and demonstrate what it can add. Working in banking is always going to have lots of finance and risk people, but how do we help people unlock their creativity and really start to put empathy at the heart of the business?
As somebody who was a CMO and is now a CEO, it’s a shame that it’s so rare. But the experience that I’ve had is that a CMO has to try a bit harder to show real interest in the metrics that matter to an organisation, to lean into the CFO and the CFO’s language, to not rely on marketing jargon and expect everyone else to understand it.
There should be more CEOs with a marketing background but we’ve got a long way to go and we have to lean in a bit more than we have done so far.
How should CMOs improve their standing in the boardroom?
The key thing is to be very clear about what marketing is and what it isn’t. Marketing is not just advertising, as many people seem to think. We need to get into a broader conversation about who the business is for, what it stands for and how that unlocks growth. That becomes quite a different conversation.
One of the things I’m trying to do with my team now is to get the to go into a presentation with an outcome and an objective, so we’re talking about metrics, numbers, outcomes and what we’re driving. It has to come back to the language that business partners speak. We have to keep coming back to things like: what we’re trying to do, what customers we are after, why they would want to do business with us, how do we create products and services they really want. That is one of the biggest shifts I can try and make, is to make sure that the C-suite and the board see advertising as one part of marketing – and that marketing is a very broad church.
What’s the most common mistake you see marketers making when talking to other business leaders?
The challenge is that marketers don’t spend enough time communicating with people in smaller groups and we don’t spend enough time understanding the different personalities, drivers, pressures and benefit barriers of people in the rest of the C-suite.
We’ve talked quite a bit about the CMO - CFO relationship, but actually we need to focus on building other alliances, with the CHRO or CIO or CTO or other areas to demonstrate that holistic understanding and show how the customer agenda and customer priorities will help achieve the broad commercial goals. That’s not about ‘this is what marketing wants’, it’s about what our customers need.
There was a talk by Mastercard at Cannes Lions with the CFO and CMO. The CMO was explaining that he had hired finance people onto his team in order to explain what he’s doing to the CFO. And he had taken that headcount out of the marketing budget to really link the language together because he knew what a key relationship that was. That alignment of metrics and targets and talking the same language is really fundamental.
What do CMOs need to do next?
Marketers need to be really clear what the role and purpose of the function is and on its ability to drive growth. Fundamentally, CEOs want to drive profitable performance and if we can’t explain what we’re doing to drive profitable performance, marketers will never close that gap. But we also need to get people excited about. It’s exciting, what marketers are doing, and we’re allowed to bring that excitement into the conversation as well.
The two most important words for anybody in marketing or elsewhere in business are: so what? Why does what we’re doing matter?
We have to answer the question of why they need us. If we can’t articulate that and then we can’t deliver on it, then we aren’t going to try for growth. We have to have conversations about how marketing is a drive of growth – and sustainable growth.
I had a great conversation with our chief commercial officer on the B2B side globally and he said: ‘The challenge with you marketers is that you talk to me about widgets, but I don’t care about widgets, I want to know what they do and what they will do for my business.’ That’s a really great challenge.
Don’t use the jargon that internally within marketing you might typically use, but rather use the language that is going to help other people in the organisation understand what you do.
What one piece of advice would you offer marketers who want to be a CEO?
You can have lots of great intent, but if you don’t have the culture right and aligned across all functions, then it won’t work. Getting the culture right is the most important thing.
Be very open and invite people in. As marketers, we can sometimes be quite closed because we feel people are going to criticise or have an opinion. We need to do exactly the opposite: be very open, invite people in and make sure we are part of the conversation. If you have a situation where it’s ‘this is marketing and this is the business’ it’s never going to work.
Be the connectors.
I had half my career client side and now half of it consulting side and the one piece that always makes the difference is being clear on what we are trying to do. So get really clear on aligning objectives, because so often marketers aren’t.