Marketers on the board: Board or boring?

Marketing directors at board level may be rare, but should they really be aiming for the boardroom in the first place, asks Robert Gray.

Is taking a seat on the board setting yourself up for boredom? It may sound like heresy for those determined to clamber to the top of the corporate tree, but is the boardroom really the right place for every marketing director?

The easy assumption to make is that those with sufficient talent will rise to the top sooner or later. But some organisations do not value the discipline of marketing as highly as others. In such a situation, even the most talented marketing stars find it tough to claw their way up to the boardroom.

And then there are those marketers who do not consider themselves right for a place at the top table. For some it may be a lack of ambition that holds them back; for others it could be a desire to focus on their area of expertise without the general management and corporate governance burdens that are bound to a seat on the board.

Being free from such encumbrances might mean marketing directors are better placed to devise the most effective strategies and milk the best work from their teams and agencies and, in turn, result in greater creativity and customer insight.

Adam Brown, marketing director at leisure company Mitchells & Butlers, which owns All Bar One, Edwards and Harvester, sits on his company's executive committee. He agrees that the boardroom is not the right environment for every kind of marketing director. 'If the marketer is more interested in spending big media budgets and taking months to develop creative work, they shouldn't be on the board because these types of marketers see their role as being about execution, whereas the board is about defining strategy. Marketing will get on the board when it behaves as a broad commercial function and not as a narrow ego trip.'

There are, Brown points out, many successful big organisations, including many of the high-street banks, that do not have marketers on their boards, but manage to be customer-oriented. As British Gas director of marketing and strategy Nick Smith says, while it is essential that the customer is 'properly represented on the board', this does not necessary require the presence of a marketer at the boardroom table.

Smith, who sits on the British Gas management board, believes that those marketing directors who see their roles only in the tightly circumscribed terms of product promotion may not be right for a board position. Most good marketing directors, he asserts, are active in areas such as customer experience, e-commerce, data and sales planning as well as communications and product promotion. 'If you want to be successful at marketing, you have to be deeply commercial and good at customer orientation,' he adds.

Proportional representation

The Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) has called for better representation of marketing at board level through executive and non-executive directorships to help businesses realise their full value. Last year it commissioned research that revealed that 92 of the FTSE 100 companies do not have a marketing director on their boards. It claimed that this showed the majority of businesses are failing to secure the most value for their shareholders.

This year the CIM conducted similar research and found the number of marketing directors on the main plc board of FTSE 100 companies had halved to just four: Tim Mason at Tesco, Angus Porter at Abbey, Bruce Davidson at Imperial Tobacco Group and John Manzoni at BP.

'There is a growing body of evidence that indicates that marketing is the key driver of shareholder value, yet it is clearly not being taken seriously enough in boardrooms across the UK, where it is often viewed as little more than promotion,' says CIM international chairman Paul Gostick. 'This view is seriously flawed. Marketing is the key business driver and a crucial part of corporate strategy that determines both target markets and differential offers and their role in creating sustainable shareholder value.

'Marketers also provide a unique perspective on the business. While they must be outward-facing, understanding the customer, the business environment and the revenue opportunity, they must also relate to their organisation's internal communities and match the customers' needs with the resources that the business affords. Organisations whose boards truly embrace marketing will be successful.'

One of the reasons that many marketers don't make it to board level was articulated by Centrica chief executive Sir Roy Gardner when he spoke at The Marketing Society conference last November. He blamed a dearth of fact-based analysis demonstrating the economic benefits of marketing.

'The problem is that marketers traditionally have not been very fluent in the language of finance,' said Gardner. 'As a result, they have been less able to translate their activities into the quantitative language of the boardroom. Therefore, in many companies, the marketing function has become marginalised within the power hierarchy. Marketers often have less clout in corporate deliberations - and tend to be the first ones to have their budgets cut when money is tight.'

The remedy, Gardner suggests, is threefold: marketers must stop thinking of themselves as functional specialists; they must become literate in economic and financial analysis; and they must act as a customer champion within their organisation, developing and delivering customer-driven strategies.

'We want to see more marketing people take leadership roles generally and be key leaders of the whole business strategy and not just of the narrow promotional strategy,' says The Marketing Society's chief executive, Hugh Burkitt. 'It is true that there are some people who are better at inspiring a great marketing campaign and recognising one when they see it than they are at the language of finance and corporate strategy. But the perfect marketing director is capable of being creative and capable of understanding the business realities.'

The Marketing Society intends to offer more training in areas such as finance and corporate management to assist those marketers keen to get to, and hold their own in, the boardroom. Although most corporate chief executives still emerge from the field of finance, Burkitt feels that marketing is doing a respectable job in providing a a rich source for the future. Sir Terry Leahy at Tesco and Dianne Thompson at Camelot are among the marketers who have gone on to take the top executive position at their companies.

Public face

Some listed companies are eager to bolster their marketing insight through the skills and experience of their non-executive directors. Last year Dixons Group appointed Interbrand chairman Rita Clifton to its board in a non-executive capacity.

But while non-executive directors have an important role to play on these boards, it is the chief executive and finance director who are generally presented as the public face of the corporation to investors and City analysts.

According to James Bidwell, there are a 'different set of requirements' for those sitting on plc boards, concerning areas such as investor relations and corporate governance. Bidwell's is an educated view. The former marketing director of Selfridges is now strategic projects director at its parent, Whittington Fashion Retail Group, and sits on the company's main board. Yet prior to the acquisition last summer, when Selfridges was still a stock market-listed entity, this was not the case.

But while he admits that marketers are not necessarily suited to roles involving non-marketing areas such as corporate governance, Bidwell is adamant that the discipline should be given a strong voice within companies. 'In our business it's fundamental. Boards are the architects of the strategy for the business and the voice of the consumer needs to be represented on our board.'

Britvic category marketing director Andrew Marsden adds: 'In a branded business I find it inconceivable that you wouldn't have someone on the board who knows about brands.' However, he doesn't believe marketers should be on a board if they are there simply to defend their corner.

Wider business issues

Marsden says it is important to be a business person first and brand expert second and adds that there are not enough marketers who think in this way. As a board member, he says he relishes the diversity of issues on which he is expected to hold views. With Britvic, this ranges from environmental issues and employment to capital investment and factories.

'I split the two functions,' says Marsden. 'I have a functional responsibility, but I'm also there to work on the business for the benefit of the shareholders. You are on the board because of your experience as a general manager, rather than your function. It is extremely difficult to remain an absolute purist. People with a general management perspective rise to the top because they can protect the wealth of people in the business.'

Puma UK and Ireland marketing director David Learmonth, who has been on the board for the two and a half years since he arrived at the company, says that it is vital to have a solid understanding of the profit and loss structure as well as the workings of the business. He thinks it would be absurd for a consumer-oriented company, such as Puma, not to have marketing represented on the board, saying the main advantage is that: 'I'm updated on every aspect of this business, which definitely makes it easier for me to do my job.'

Learmonth argues that as consumer trading and planning are central to Puma's business, they must also form a fundamental part of the company's business strategy. The best way of ensuring this happens, he says, is for marketing to have a presence on the board.

The heart of the matter is that brands are assets on which companies receive a return. All marketing directors should understand this and have some basic financial knowledge. That doesn't necessarily mean selling one's soul to become a bean-counter, but it does call for an awareness of the bigger commercial picture.

But some feel there is a danger of overkill. Leading US academic Philip Kotler, author of Marketing Management: Analysis, Planning, Implementation and Control, has expressed concern that too much financial training for marketers could be detrimental, as it can make them risk-averse and less innovative in setting marketplace strategy. That is not to say there is no place for marketers on the board, but for those determined to make it there, it is a point that deserves some thought.


'If the purpose of a board of directors is to help make a company more successful, I cannot see how that can be achieved without having the marketing director as a board member and without marketing being an extremely powerful function therein. Marketing is about the future of the company and trying to define what customers need before they realise it themselves. That's how competitive advantage is gained. I have been on the board at Specsavers for nearly nine years and wouldn't even consider working for a firm where marketing isn't represented on the board. Look at Tesco; its success over the past 15 years is down to the role marketing has played and the influence of (chief executive and former marketing director) Sir Terry Leahy and (marketing director, and board member) Tim Mason. Marketing's role is to offer insight into what's happening in the marketplace. If a company has a corporate strategy, how can it not have a marketing strategy? The two go together. I like being on the board and have no problem with the cross-functionality it calls for.'


'Marketers need genuine influence and the ability to be brave. That doesn't necessarily come from a seat on the board. For many people there is a mystique about the boardroom, but lots of important decisions for a business are made elsewhere. I have seen some board-level marketing directors who have had no influence whatsoever. I sit on the Barclays' UK board, but not the plc one. At Barclays we have been able to increase the chief executive's confidence in marketing's ability. When I have sat on boards, there has been a lot of administrative work. I'd rather be involved in analysis and creative work. Risk and governance issues bore the pants off me. It's your ability to influence, rather than your hierarchical position that matters. When I was at Emap, the editorial director at the time, Dave Hepworth, was one of the most influential figures in UK magazines, overseeing launches such as Q and Heat. He was brilliant at analysis, a scintillating presenter and could convince people to go with a launch. He had the influence, but never wanted a full-time board position.'