Marketing directors have a habit of moving swiftly from one job to the
next - and when they do, it has profound knock-on effects. John Tylee
explores the link between job switches and account moves
Modern marketing departments are neither for the faint-hearted nor the
unambitious. To survive them, Keith Holloway, Grand Metropolitan’s
recently retired commercial director, claims, you need as much armour as
a World War II tank commander.
To succeed in them, you need the vaulting ambition of a Premier League
manager - and the recognition that your survival prospects may not
outlast the chairman’s next vote of confidence.
With so many recession-battered companies finding it easier to sacrifice
their marketers in the quest for short-term advantage, rather than
tackling fundamental long-term problems - and with so much restless
ambition among marketers eager to make their mark - it’s small wonder
that many departments are in a state of perpetual upheaval.
What’s more, it seems to be getting worse. Two years ago, J. Walter
Thompson calculated that the average time a marketing director stayed in
a job was 17 months. Compare that with the Premier League, where, if you
don’t count Manchester United’s Alex Ferguson, 19 months is the average
tenure for a club manager.
Now, a survey by the specialist research company, Data Management
Services, among marketing personnel at the top 3,000 UK advertisers
reveals that 53 per cent of them changed jobs in an 18- month period to
June this year.
More ominous still is DMS’s claim to have proved that if a company’s
most senior marketer moves on, an agency review invariably follows, with
the incumbent shop almost always losing the business.
‘People have no idea how dynamic the market is, but even we were
astonished at the correlation between marketing directors changing jobs
and the number of account moves,’ Richard Laven, DMS’s managing
The marketing merry-go-round raises questions about the right of many
companies to claim guardianship of their brands and about the potential
damage to their advertising.
‘Long-term agency relationships are vital,’ Sholto Douglas-Home, head of
advertising for BT’s personal communications division, insists. ‘It’s
the only way to get the best work.’
Laven agrees: ‘The best advertising starts to happen once the
relationship between agency and client is solid and that takes up to two
years. If this is so, and many marketing people are moving within 18
months, advertising quality must be suffering.’
But why such turmoil in marketing departments? The reasons are varied
and reflect the high stakes being played for by companies and marketers.
The DMS survey makes no distinction between marketing staff who left for
better jobs and those who were fired. But Lyndy Payne, owner of the
Advertising Agency Register, says: ‘It’s my impression that departures
‘by mutual consent’ are now much more common.’
One explanation for such high mobility is that the job of the marketer
has been made more difficult. The fragmentation of media and the
development of the Internet have multiplied the routes advertisers can
At the same time, marketing staff are feeling insecure as key
advertising decisions are taken increasingly in the boardroom.
‘In the US, most chief executives see themselves as the ultimate brand
marketers and it’s happening increasingly in the UK,’ Paul Twivy, the
former chief executive of the Bates Dorland group, says. ‘It means
marketing people are feeling threatened and disempowered. The fact that
marketing is such an inexact science doesn’t help.’
The DMS research also suggests that middle-rankers’ insecurity is
fuelled by companies’ increasing tendency to pack their marketing
departments with brand and product managers, whose ranks have swollen
from 3,004 in January 1995 to 4,137 in June this year.
Explanations for this phenomenon vary, but there are strong indications
that many companies are keen to hire more staff at brand level as front
line troops in the battle against the burgeoning threat of own-label
Meanwhile, marketing departments are being scrutinised from within as
never before. ‘They are really under the cosh,’ Twivy observes. ‘Other
departments have become more accountable and re-engineered themselves. I
see no reason why marketing shouldn’t do so as well.’
The marketers’ predicament is exacerbated by the disproportionate amount
of attention they attract. ‘Marketing is the only part of the company
that directly confronts the opposition,’ Holloway says. ‘If you’re a
finance director you don’t get judged against your counterpart in your
nearest rival. But marketing directors do get compared with their
opponents when, in many cases, they’re not in charge of their own
The result is that marketing departments have lost the collective self
confidence they once possessed. ‘Pressures from finance and purchasing
people have caused the marketers’ heads to drop,’ John Hooper, director
general of the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, says.
‘Marketing has lost some of its leadership role.’
Some senior marketers also believe the willingness of agencies to under-
cut the opposition has caused added aggravation.
‘Many agencies go into bat on a price platform and company finance
directors have got to know it,’ Holloway explains. ‘When everything was
on 15 per cent commission, companies thought they were getting the
agency for nothing. Now, with so much work being done on a fee basis,
marketing people are under more pressure to justify what they are
Of course, much of what is happening is a legacy of the recession. The
slashing of graduate recruitment programmes in the 80s and early 90s led
to a dearth of good, well-trained people. Poaching is rife. ‘It’s the
law of the jungle,’ Hooper claims. Vacancies for absolute beginners are
few and far between.
Worse still, the famine looks unlikely to ease along with recessionary
pressures. Recalling his early days as one of about 20 graduate trainees
at Procter and Gamble, Hooper says: ‘The company accepted that there
would be some fall-out and that it might not hold on to some of its
highest fliers. But it knew it would be left with a small core of very
high quality people.’
Such altruism is rare today. As Hooper points out: ‘Just how many of the
smaller companies are willing to train three or four graduates when it’s
almost certain they’ll be stolen?’
Some companies have added to their marketers’ insecurity by undervaluing
their input. And they have omitted to accord some jobs the necessary
status. While a debate rages in the UK about whether or not brand
managers should be phased out, it’s not uncommon to find a 50-year-old
filling the role in US companies. ‘It’s considered to be a big,
important job which people often do for a long time,’ Hooper says.
The difference is that US markets are huge in comparison with their
British counterparts, where boredom is likely to strike ambitious
‘After two years in the marketing department of Heinz or Kraft General
Foods, you’re probably not being challenged in the way you’d like,’
Twivy says. ‘It’s not like being in an agency, where you might work with
very diverse clients.’
At the same time, the most aspiring young marketers are taking their cue
from the growing number of high-profile ‘stars’, such as Mercury
Communications’ Simon Esberger. And what better way for a newly arrived
marketing chief to create a stir than by reviewing the ad account?
Less obvious, however, is the enormous ripple effect that just one
single job change can cause.
According to DMS, a typical scenario goes like this. Marketing boss
switches from company A to company B. He reviews company B’s ad account.
Other senior marketers in the sector are unsettled because they’re
likely to have been approached for the vacancy at company A and company
B. So if they weren’t looking for a new job previously, they probably
are now.If company A replaces the marketing boss with an outsider,
ambitious but disillusioned middle-rankers start looking for a new job.
The same goes for their counterparts at company B.
If a middle-ranker at company A is promoted to the top slot, other
middle-rankers at company A may be prompted to move on. The new
marketing director at company A also starts an advertising agency
DMS admits this is a mite simplistic and that the likes of Procter and
Gamble and Unilever don’t meddle with agency alignments just because a
top person changes jobs. But it’s a different story for marketing
directors who are newly charged with revitalising brands with no
successful core values - and are only too ready to accept a lunch
date with Robin Wight.
Not surprisingly, agencies view the marketing department churn with
ambivalence, particularly because it can open as many doors as it
‘The downside is that we lose out on long-term relationships,’ Martin
Jones, JWT’s new-business director, says.
‘The upside is that marketing is a training ground that helps produce
more rounded clients, and we all applaud that.’
Chris Thomas, Jones’s counterpart at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, sees one
obvious lesson. ‘The turnover is frightening,’ he says. ‘But it shows
that we need to maintain close contacts at every level of a client
Overall numbers by job function
On the evidence of these figures, client companies appear to be packing
their marketing departments with brand and product managers, rather than
with more senior staff.
According to statistics covering an 18-month period to June this year,
the UK’s top 3,000 advertisers boosted the ranks of junior marketers
from a low of 3,004 in January 1995 to 4,137 in June this year - a 37
per cent increase.
The reason? One theory is that the growing threat of ‘own label’
products has encouraged many advertisers to hire more people at brand
level to find better and more inventive ways to compete.
Appointments and account moves
Nothing sends shivers down agencies’ spines like the news that a
client’s most senior marketer is moving on.
This set of statistics implies that such fears are well founded and that
a change at the top of a client company invariably precipitates a review
and a change of agency.
The graph shows how the number of new senior marketing appointments
almost exactly mirrors the number of account moves.
The link is further borne out by the adjusted senior marketer
appointments line. This acknowledges the fact that DMS data on personnel
movements is usually captured six weeks after the event and may be a
more accurate indicator of the time between a top marketing job being
filled and an account being switched.
Vacancies and promotions
The importance agencies attach to maintaining relationships at every
level of the client’s marketing operation is reinforced by these
figures. They show that almost seven out of ten of the most senior
marketing vacancies are filled via internal promotions in marketing
departments. External appointees or candidates from other departments
make up the rest.
The research also suggests that March to May this year was a volatile
period, during which time the number of senior marketing vacancies fell.
This was partly because companies were taking their pick from a well-
supplied market of potential candidates, resulting in vacancies being
filled quickly. But many senior marketing posts disappeared when the
jobs were made redundant.