Why tomorrow's CEO will come from marketing

When it comes to running businesses, the finance function wins hands down over marketing. But things may be about to change, says Alex Smith.

by Alex Smith
Last Updated: 24 May 2016

Marketing and finance are generally seen to sit at opposite ends of a spectrum. From the substantive to the shallow. The vital to the optional. The intelligent to the facile. The wise to the foolish. The big-picture to the small. Basically, the grown-ups to the kids.

There’s no need to spell out which sits where is there? Heck, I work in marketing and I agree with you. Every marketer has had the humbling experience of exposing their work to the common sense scrutiny of a non-marketing observer – finance director, CEO, or just the man on the street – revealing the general triviality of what we do every day. Meanwhile, the real business carries on regardless. Let the marketers have their fun. We’ve got a company to run.

Set against this backdrop, it’s little wonder that marketers rarely rise to the very top of an organisation. They account for just 8% of FTSE 100 CEOs. They are somehow just too detached, too isolated in their own spacey little world. They rarely muddy their hands in the other less glamorous parts of the business – the supply chain, the manufacturing, the distribution, the personnel, the property, heaven forbid the finance leaving them ill- equipped to take on roles that claim responsibility for all these and more.

The money men and women, on the other hand, they need to know this stuff. The bottom line is affected by everything, so they need to ‘get’ everything. It is this attribute that gives those with a financial background the advantage when going for the top job. They aren’t just prudent, they’re knowledgeable. They can make a wise call on, say, forklift inventory, as it’s not completely foreign territory to them; just another place where they’ve had to cast a watchful eye. That’s why they account for 52% of CEOs, not 8%.

How is it then that marketing could be set to flip these numbers on their head?

Let’s stop and think about what marketing really is for a moment. Every company exists in the context of the wider world, the world to which it provides value in some way or other. If the value it provides is desirable, economically viable and in some way unique (at least within its local market), then essentially the company will be successful. Customers will flow to it, almost more by natural design than by brute force. It will be doing something worthwhile, and will reap its rewards.

This is real marketing – simply making a company worthwhile. It is the defining of what a company ‘is’; knowing that if you get that right then all else flows from there.

This understanding is very different from the way people often see marketing today –i.e. defining what a company ‘says’ rather than what it ‘is’. This is the side-effect of 50 years of mass media, which has allowed floods of generic businesses to create ‘pretend’ differentiation in the form of hollow statements and slogans.

This model is now starting to crack, as the internet and democratised communication begin to reveal the vacuum behind the slogans. For the first time since the 1960s, the businesses that are winning are those that deserve to; those that do marketing by having an interesting, unique, and worthwhile business, not those that shout loudest.

The effect this shift promises to have on marketing as a discipline will be seismic. It is already changing advertising where a technique called ‘basic’ is emerging to work on the insides of companies, not just campaigns. Beyond this, if marketing is now about ensuring a business fulfils its purpose, then that means its voice will become relevant in every part

of it. Imagine for instance marketing not as an isolated department, but rather as a role within every other department. They would be there to ensure that as well as running effectively, each element would also run in harmony with the organisation’s unique mission. This would produce, quite simply, better companies with genuinely meaningful brands, for which increasing transparency would be a weapon, not a threat.

There’s nothing more integral within a business – not even finance – than simply knowing who you are and what you’re here for. It is by becoming masters of that simple idea that marketing will move from the periphery to the heart of business, and from the cubicle to the boardroom table. 

Alex Smith is head of strategy at Basic Arts.


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