Measuring success as a marketing leader has always been a tricky exercise. Do you prioritise brand recognition or qualified lead capture? Number of field marketing initiatives or how the sales team are performing (or viewing you)? The return on investment you’re providing for the CFO and the wider business, or the size of the smile on your CEO’s face with that one out-of-the-box—but viral—campaign? And there is more to leadership in marketing. You’re probably listing them mentally right now.
The inconvenient truth is that there is no right answer. This is but one reason why the marketing lead has one of the most complex—and rewarding—roles in the leadership team. It is also why conversations around what success looks like for the marketing C-suite is such a hot topic, one consistently debated within HotTopics’ marketing leaders community year after year. This 2023 iteration took HotTopics’ Editor Peter Stojanovic and 18 marketing leaders to a top London restaurant for a three-course lunch and debate, as part of HotTopics’ Food for Thought Series. Here, they shared their own experiences with the aim of distilling these insights into key learnings for their peers to take on-board. After all, it was noted, the marketing function is also a community, and learnings should be shared to benefit marketers and the marketing function all over the world.
Each course offered an opportunity to debate one question. In this article on leadership in marketing, learn how marketing leaders answered the following:
- What defines a successful CMO today?
- What is shaping leadership in marketing for 2023?
- What is top of mind for you this year, and why?
Joining this Food for Thought episode, How to be a Successful Marketing Leader, were the following leaders:
Suzi Williams, NED, HotTopics and JDSports, former CMO, BT;
Amit Sharma, Global Head, Field Marketing, Tata Communications;
Joanne Gilhooley, CMO, Adarma Security;
Joanne Tearle, Head of UKI Partner Marketing, Cisco;
Jirina Yates, VP EMEA Marketing, Alteryx;
Katarina Rabava, Marketing Head, RIG UK and Europe, Tata Consultancy Services
Mark Wheeler, CMO, LeanIX;
Marie Thornton, Head of International Marketing, BlueJeans by Verizon;
Prelini Udayan-Chiechi, SVP Global Digital & Regional Marketing, Zendesk;
Rachel Henley, Head of EMEAR Networking and Cloud Marketing, Cisco;
Rebecca Blackmore, Senior Marketing Lead, OutSystems;
Ryan Nappi, Marketing Director, Northern Europe, Tanium.
Steven Gerrard, Senior Director, Nutanix;
Will Cook, Deputy MD, Harvard PR.
What defines a successful CMO today?
Definitions are useful as guides only. Both business- and consumer-facing marketing leaders have seen their roles evolve continuously, perhaps more so than any other C-suite member, as they seek to integrate the data-driven methodologies of digital technology, the empathetic leadership espoused by best business practices, and changing client and consumer expectations. In short, a successful CMO balances all of those and more. But specifics are needed to make any guide actionable; below are 10 elements these leaders felt defined a successful CMO and are pivotal to leadership in marketing in 2023.
Empathy is a key attribute of any successful leader today, regardless of function. Empathy shows through in the interest you show in your team and their wellbeing, in the wider picture of the human beings within the organisation. Individuals and teams respond to this form of leadership over time with respect, trust and results. The former two support a cohesive team; the latter supports the wider business, we heard.
- Diversity of experience
Organisation size, sectors and geographies all play significant roles in shaping a business’ marketing function. Some marketing leaders prefer to specialise in smaller organisations; others, global enterprises. Each requires its own particular skill-sets, modes of working and political manoeuvrability. They also expose you to different types of teams and, in particular, CEOs and Boards, which over time lends itself to developing a more well-rounded marketing leader. A good manager knows who they are managing, we heard. The more you see, the better prepared you will be.
- Continuously learning
Curiosity kept the CMO. Not quite how the saying goes, but it certainly encapsulates the feeling of the group. In a continuously changing environment, the marketing leader who stands still risks being left behind. Keeping up with current affairs, trends and new technologies are just as important as prioritising which trends and technologies to keep on top of. Marketing groups, different teams within the business and younger generations all provide access to new information, and key to securing leadership in marketing.
- Focused and flexible
These two ‘F’s’ describe not necessarily personal characteristics, but more leadership styles—a subtle difference. Focused leadership encourages you to stay on track with your marketing ambitions and brand, and not led astray by short term metrics or budget cuts. But flexibility is necessary to adapt and evolve plans where necessary: a marketing leader’s responsibilities to the Board and to their teams are not always aligned.
- Commercially astute
The perspective of marketing being a function of subjectivity has met the cold light of day in data. Marketers have had to be some of the most adept data leaders in the business. This informs their campaigns, reinforces their relationship with sales and, bluntly speaking, defends their role. Now? Commercial astuteness translates data-driven marketing into viable strategies the CEO, CFO and Board can quickly understand. Commercial astuteness means recognising the relevant metrics for your business, investing in the tools to receive those metrics and translating the information into cases for marketing investment by the Board. Tricky CEO relationship? The group discussed this too, see further below.
- Customer alignment
The group felt it important to highlight that a successful marketing leader has positioned themselves and their team closest to the customer. They should “own the go-to-market motion and be the final word on who the customer is, what they want and how you will deliver those needs.” Many organisations position sales closest to the customer. This can be a mistake—for both the customer and the business. This alignment for the marketing team also improves its stock within their organisation, promoting respect and trust from the other departments, and spotlighting leadership in marketing as an important profile for businesses in 2023.
- Mental fortitude
Across the debate, different aspects of the state of mind of successful marketers were brought forward. “Knowing where to draw the line”, or, “What does good enough look like?”, are tough decisions to make but they separate the good from the great marketers. Similarly, “not being afraid to not know the answer”, was a difficult lesson for those present to learn in their careers, but it has helped bolster good, transparent relationships with their teams and peers. Last, if you are fortunate enough to have (hired) a good team, let them lead you; success is not down to the individual and a leader encourages their team to shine. It does mean putting the ego to one side, however.
- The glue that binds
No conversation in 2023 can avoid the spectre or reality of recession—nor should they. Difficult decisions are being made worldwide but those companies that maintain their ethos, culture and creativity will be well rewarded—and the marketing leader is key to binding this culture in times of feast or famine. This unifying position centres on knowing (and owning) the brand identity and company purpose, and the ability to articulate that across the whole organisation.
- Purpose alignment
Continually reminding the Board (and yourself) of your marketing strategies and how they enable the company purpose will help you balance short and long term objectives. It keeps the rudder stable, the value(s) clear and the demonstration of marketing’s impact that much easier.
- Pragmatic C-suite alignment
Last, but by no means least, was the wry discussion on C-suite alignment, or, to be specific, how to get along with your CEO. It is no secret that one of the main sources of friction for the marketing function is the trust they have from their CEO. It also doesn’t help matters that this relationship begins again from scratch with every new CEO, regardless of how well you have performed the previous quarter or financial year. It’s important to recognise that this is part of the job, part of leadership in marketing. In extreme circumstances, if your CEO does not, or will not, ‘get’ marketing, “don’t work there, because life is short.” Some around the table have been in difficult situations before and do not want to see that repeated in others’ careers. But there are ways to improve this relationship over time. Patience is key; send small wins in their direction as often as you are able and—here is that word again—be flexible: “if they want leaflets, give them leaflets.” Over time, a relationship is forged.
What is shaping leadership in marketing for 2023?
The table had already discussed the ability of marketers to be flexible creatures. A new year brings new challenges and opportunities—and 2023 is no different. Here are the 3 headwinds—or tailwinds, depending on how you look at it—coming their (and your) way.
- Doing more with less
That oft-mentioned quote is back. Cycles are seemingly a natural part of our economy and a great marketer is a resilient marketer. Facing the headwind of doing more with less adds difficult decisions into the to-do pile of marketing leaders. Loss of talent and investment were the top two that came to mind. Crises, though, are also excellent times to get creative. Stringent budgets recalibrate the mind and a team with guardrails can actually come up with more interesting ideas. Get back to the basics and do the basics extremely well to maintain trust during perhaps some bumpy months ahead.
- Technology hype
Another cyclic relationship for marketers is one they have with technologies. The hype cycle is one we’re all prone at times to succumb to; but given the earlier position, there is increasing argument to look to invest in the next-generation technology as a way of innovating out of a recession. ChatGPT, with the right talent in place, of course, does actually offer practical ways of aiding your content strategies. Metaverse partnerships—met with some groans, it has to be said—offer a tantalising way of transforming digital relationships and experiences.
Every C-suite leader has talent at the top of their list of priorities for this year. In a seemingly counterintuitive way, it is becoming increasingly harder to find good talent in a reported employees’ market at the outset of a rumoured recession. Read that again. The most appropriate thing to do in 2023, if your focus is leadership in marketing, is to invest in your talent: make sure you keep your best and rising stars, upskill and cross-skill others who may benefit from shifting their focus; their understanding of the business is both valuable and a cost-saving measure. Next, consider your employee value proposition for external candidates. Are you really showcasing yourself in the best way possible? 2023 represents one of the most diverse demographics of candidates, potential ever: Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Baby-boomers and everyone in-between; they all have different needs, expectations, wants and red lines. Know them and serve them.
What is top of mind for you this year, and why?
It could be argued that, given the sentiments of the first question and debate, there is no one top of mind for marketers—everything should be balanced. For the purposes of this article, however, the following three points are worthy of note—and even further debate.
- Be bold, hold fast…
Despite the complexities of balancing the numerous plates in being a ‘successful’ marketing leader, and the head- and tailwinds coming our way, there is something to be said for boldness. No-one can see into the future—but anyone can see back into the past. And what we see is that, largely, we’ve been here before, and, critically, those who have steadfastly battled through the downward cycle are rewarded with more loyal customers and employees, and the necessary experience to build and maintain a more resilient, flexible marketing function.
- …and fail fast
Again, perhaps counterintuitively, failing fast (business-speak for ‘experiment and learn’) at a time of recessions makes sense. As said previously, straightened times mould more creative teams, which will help drive better experimentation when testing new initiatives, platforms and audiences. It, too, takes bravery and boldness. But to showcase true leadership in marketing, the results can be well worth it.
- Post-pandemic customers
One leader noted that much of the debate quite rightly discussed the internal battles marketers face. What needs further attention, however, is the battle for customer attention. The pandemic has changed customer behaviours in ways we’re still mapping and marketing teams have been busy responding. But the truth is that different customer journeys are now needed to cater for their tastes: virtual and in-person; transactional and emotional; local and global. Customer engagement is changing; so should marketing. The question on everyone’s lips? “How?”.
The table could have spoken on the above all afternoon. That said, the conversation in its entirety has been condensed to roughly 20 percent of the total for the purposes of a focused article. This tells us three things: one, the debate around what a successful marketer looks like is almost inexhaustive, that the amount and complexities of elements of what it means to be successful is in some ways an answer to why it is so difficult to be a successful marketing leader; two, that this is, and will continue to be, a vital topic that requires constant iteration year upon year; and three, perspective and context are vital in fashioning clear guidelines on this topic—18 voices were needed to contribute to this piece, and although thorough, still leaves room for expansion.
Marketing leaders need the right team behind them, with them and in front of them to succeed. They need modern and relevant skill-sets to make best use of solutions at our disposal. And they need the right mindset to continue to push the marketing function’s influence to the Board and beyond.
Want to learn more?
Discover the Top 100 B2B Marketing Leaders 2022-2023, as voted by our community of marketing leaders, and learn how these CMOs stay on top of their responsibilities with aplomb, in this filmed roundtable debate, Charting the Ever Evolving Role of the CMO, recorded at The Studio.