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5 skills marketers need to gain a seat in the boardroom

Marketers must embrace data, technology and finance in order to successfully secure a seat in the boardroom.

A growing recognition of the need for customer-centricity within business is not currently matched by marketing’s presence in the boardroom. Only 34 marketing directors sit on the executive board of US Fortune 1,000 companies. Of FTSE 100 CEOs, only 21% had a marketing background in 2015.

Marketers gain a place on the board, credibility and strategic support from director-level peers only if they speak the right language. This is according to new research published by Econsultancy and Oracle Marketing Cloud.

The research showed that marketers who have grown through the ranks in digital organisations or been part of the launch teams of successful and rapidly growing startups are finding the path to leadership easier than those in more traditional organisations.

Two of the highest profile board level marketing executives are Unilever’s Keith Weed and Roisin Donnelly at P&G UK. Both have been largely responsible for creating a strong brand focus in the FMCG sector and allowed many products to transcend commoditisation. The presence of these two executives demonstrates how important the marketing voice has become in the board room.

The research, which involved in-depth interviews with a number of leading global marketers in markets across the US, Europe and APAC, revealed the areas marketers need to upskill to gain a place at the top tier of leadership.

Here are the top 5 skills needed for marketers to gain a seat on the board.

Communications

The single most important skill identified by all the executives interviewed for this report was the ability to communicate in a vernacular that the board can understand. In the vast majority of cases this means leaving a great deal of what could be termed marketing speak at the door.

To resonate with the board, it’s not just about adapting language to be less familiar, less colloquial. Using the language of finance and IT literally isn’t lip-service.

Marketers have to be able to distinguish between metrics that are perhaps not financially rigorous but still allow them to make decisions at team level and those that can be applied directly to the bottom line.

The marketer at board level is a split personality. To show credibility and strategic leadership, they need to fit into the mould of their peers at the table. But as advocates of the customer and custodians of creativity in the organisation, they also need to distill the dry facts and figures.

The long-term goals into excitement and enthusiasm through the teams they lead – teams that aren’t just made up of marketers any more – that drives brand performance and delights customers.

Knowing the science of marketing

As we have already alluded to, it’s not enough to simply speak like a board member. Those figures and measurements being trotted out really do need to add up. There is no point in coming up with woolly indicators that somehow made sense at the time of the team meeting. Telling the CFO that the social media strategy broke the company’s previous ‘Tweets favourited’ record won’t cut it. For many marketers, the need to get to grips with a degree of statistical analysis, modelling and a deep dive into the technological processes that deliver customer information is vital.

Borders no longer really exist in terms of e-commerce so while the marketer may nominally be purely US, Europe, APAC or Latin America based, the fact is an understanding of global markets is also required.

Australia, it was noted, is following a similar path but other regions including China, India, Singapore and even the relatively technologically advanced South Korea, are not using data to support marketing and customer experience strategies at anything like the same level. Assertions around being a data or digital savvy marketer to operate at board level therefore have very different implications dependent on the relative maturity of the market.

To succeed at this level, regardless of the levels of market maturity, in terms of technological and information capabilities, it is always advisable for the marketer to adopt a gold standard of understanding. If their market is not yet mature, trends are moving so fast it will be a matter of moments before the market catches up and overtakes capabilities. To be fair, no marketer, however highly placed, has reached the gold standard simply because the market keeps moving.

Being data-savvy

Since overall businesses – not just e-commerce – are moving more and more towards a data-heavy environment, companies will need digital experts who can help this transition.

Marketers are continually faced with the common challenge of keeping up with, understanding and managing the data transformation. The digital environment has been a clear boon to marketers wishing to make the leap towards the board. Its inherent measurability and the fact that marketing leads the majority of the sales strategy in this space puts the marketer at the centre of the conversion conversation.

Marketers who have cut their teeth in digital may already possess these skills but those who don’t need to seek to build teams of data scientists and marketing automation experts who can deliver on this need. The marketer has become quite a difficult profile to fill, being both conceptually strong, data inclined, commercial and focused on ROI.

Ability to encourage team building

Marketers reading through the growing shopping list of skills in this report might be starting to worry that the demands on their intellect is rapidly becoming an unsupportable burden.

While it is true that the marketer at board level is very much more the generalist and is expected to a degree to be a Jack or Jill of all trades, there is no expectation that they are expected to be the font of all knowledge in every area.

Marketers no longer have the luxury of claiming “I’m simply not a numbers person” but they are still hired for their creative and strategic side.

If marketers are having to develop their data muscles to a degree then perhaps an even more important one to exercise is their people-building skills. If their place on the board is going to be built on a ‘people pyramid’, it’s up to the marketer to make sure the foundations of that pyramid are solid.

Having diverse experience

Gaining experience at board level isn’t about plunging headlong into an advanced accountancy course. The argument is that senior marketers should have more than a working knowledge of business finance regardless. However it is about gaining as much experience and as broad a range of experience as possible.

Halfords’ CEO Jill McDonald took a technical demotion working for another brand earlier in her career by accepting an international role because she understood this would have a positive impact in her later career.

There isn’t one path or defined set of experiences and characteristics that make up the archetypal board marketer.

PropertyGuru’s CMO Bjorn Sprengers started out in strategy consulting which he would suggest is a good starting point. “You’re trained in the fundamentals of business in analytics and communications, understanding how the dots in the organisation are connected.”

Possessing financial acumen

To an extent it is alright to delegate the management of data and insight in the company to the technical experts who can build the algorithms and distill results but when those insights begin to impact the bottom line, it is down to the marketer to be able to translate those impacts into financial information for the business.

An understanding of how all the elements under their guardianship, from campaigns to call centre resourcing, translates into the financial health of the business is ultimately the only way to keep credibility on the board.

Marketing has always struggled to a degree with justifying its value. But now, with a wealth of metrics, experts and financial ability at today’s marketer’s fingertips this need no longer be the case and yet an echo of the marketer going cap in hand to finance remains. If marketers are to be taken seriously and that cost centre switched to a perceived investment, they have to embolden themselves and talk in financial terms.

Andrea Ward, vice president of marketing, Oracle Marketing Cloud, said: “The value of marketing in driving revenue is undeniable, and as such it’s time marketers solidify their role next to other executive decision-makers to drive business strategies.

“The role of today’s CMO is all-encompassing. It requires them to be part artist – leading their teams to develop inspiring campaigns; part scientist – analysing and uncovering value from the huge volumes of valuable data they collect; and part politician – building relationships and becoming great communicators.”

Jim Clark, research director at Econsultancy, added: “If marketing has been given a seat at the board, it’s because the board values its contribution there. With the right preparation, marketers at this level have permission to take bigger and bolder steps. Change can be slow and sometimes not in a straight line, but it will happen with the right vision and patience.”

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