Be obsessed about understanding customers, says Mars' Thomas Delabriere

Broaden your skills, take care choosing who you work with and put the consumer at the heart of what you do, says Thomas Delabriere, marketing VP, Middle East, Turkey and Africa, at Mars Chocolate.

Mars Chocolate's Thomas Delabriere says rich, varied experiences help make a better marketer
Mars Chocolate's Thomas Delabriere says rich, varied experiences help make a better marketer

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As I write this, I am spending my holidays in the gorgeous South of France. I could not dream of a better context to reflect on my past 20 years in marketing and share my key learnings with the ‘newbies’ in the industry.

My first piece of advice is to get as many different experiences as possible in your career. In my view, developing a wide skill-set is the best way to open up exciting career opportunities in marketing and beyond. I worked in sales, category management, local and regional marketing, in very different categories and types of companies.

Out of your comfort zone

Very often, I found the moves I made pretty challenging, as they brought me out of my comfort zone. But at the same time, I learned a lot from them and am convinced I would not have the job I currently do without all these different experiences.

My most difficult period was probably when I moved to Britain more than 10 years ago to become the marketing manager on HP Sauce – one of the most iconic British brands.

Being French and knowing absolutely nothing about bacon butties or greasy spoons, my first few months were pretty challenging. But, at the same time, it was one of the most rewarding professional experiences I have ever had. Not only did I learn a lot of ‘Britishness’ (and became a British citizen), I had so much fun. One of my best marketing moments was when we managed to convince [snooker player] Jimmy White to change his name by deed poll to Jimmy Brown as part of a sponsorship deal with HP Sauce – a brilliant idea from Graham Goodkind at Frank PR.

Knowing nothing about bacon butties or greasy spoons, my first few months working on HP sauce were pretty challenging.

At Mars, the role of marketing is to create and lead a culture around growth that runs through the entire business. As a consequence, marketers have to develop and use skills that go well beyond the traditional brand-positioning works or copy developments. It is why Mars UK has developed a top-notch graduate programme, which gives an amazing depth of understanding of how the business operates, the role of marketing and other functions, as well as massive responsibilities in very different areas. In your first three years, you have the chance to work in three different functions. It is a brilliant way to develop your skills to become a great marketer.

People-first industry

My second piece of advice relates to people. This industry is all about them. Even if you manage weak brands or are in very challenging business situations, you can perform miracles – as long as you work with great colleagues and brilliant agencies. The wrong people will make you waste time and can cause fantastic brands or campaigns to go totally wrong. It is why I would strongly recommend spending a significant amount of time selecting whom you are going to work with; your boss, colleagues (whether marketers or not) and agencies.

When I was at Innocent Drinks, I had the pleasure of working with [co-founder] Richard Reed. He often said: "It is much better to have a hole in your team than an asshole." This is 100% true.

It is much better to have a hole in your team than an asshole

The other key thing is that the more you give people, the more they will grow and the more rewarding it will be. At Mars, we place massive importance on personal development. Since I joined, I have mentored several marketers in different countries. It is great to see how fast they progress, gain leadership and make a difference to the business.

Lastly, a ‘back-to-basics’ piece of advice – be obsessed about understanding your consumers. Putting them at the heart of what you do is much talked about, but not always practised, as the daily life of a marketer is split between a huge number of tasks. Bombarded by multiple requests, torn between priorities, you need to exercise your sense of focus to ‘cut the noise’, so you can perform the mission that is the most important one for your function – one that nobody else in the organisation will do.

I am now based in Dubai for Mars Chocolate, working across all the Middle Eastern and African markets. Getting an in-depth understanding of my consumers is definitely one of my top priorities.