Board games: why are so few marketers becoming CEOs?

Business | Fri 18 Nov | Author – Business & Finance
team spirit staff ceo board

David Deighan examines why so few marketers are making it to the top table of business.

Back in the mid-nineties, TV viewers in Ireland were treated to the experience of watching an advertisement featuring a patron of an unidentified pub and a barman.

The patron orders a pint of Guinness and, while waiting for the pint to be poured, carries out a series of quirky dance movements to an equally quirky Perez Prado tune.

As the patron dances with the settling pint in the foreground, the barman looks on in amusement. The piece ends with the patron taking his first sip of the freshly poured pint accompanied by the advertising slogan, ‘No time like Guinness Time’.

In the early days of my career, I was fortunate to work as a junior team member at St James’s Gate working on this award-winning campaign. At the time, Guinness was struggling to stay relevant against the onslaught of chilled, bland American lagers. These brands had one practical advantage.

They could be served at speed by busy bar staff, as they don’t require time to settle as Guinness does. However, they were nowhere near as profitable to Diageo as Guinness is and continues to be.

… being able to ‘speak the right language’ with director-level peers

Research confirmed that having to wait for the pint to settle was contributing to Guinness losing popularity and an increasing number of younger male drinkers were unlikely to ‘graduate’ to Guinness as their usual rite of passage.

Guinness was an old man’s drink. The ‘insight’ was the realisation that turning this negative into something positive could make a difference. Hence the hugely clever and successful ad campaign. For a brand worth millions, this campaign paid for itself many times over. It reinforced my view that one of the most important benefits a good marketer can bring to a business is what’s called ‘actionable insights’.

However, despite their best efforts, marketers struggle to stay relevant. In the US, only a meagre 34 marketing directors sit on the board of Fortune 1,000 companies. Only 21% of FTSE 100 CEOs have a marketing background. So why are marketers so conspicuously unsuccessful at making it to the top table?


david deignan

David Deignan, KPMG

Econsultancy and Oracle have conducted research that suggests that this lack of boardroom presence is an anomaly, as most businesses should encourage marketers onto their boards because of the need for ‘customer-centricity’.

The most important skill identified by all contributors was the ability to communicate in language that the board can understand

However, the study states that very few marketers can combine their credentials for improving customer-centricity in the boardroom with being able to ‘speak the right language’ with director-level peers.

This means being able to juggle creative, strategic and technical issues alongside a solid understanding of the business’s financial objectives and an ability to demonstrate their function’s direct contribution.

The Econsultancy report states that ‘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’.

The most important skill identified by all contributors was the ability to communicate in language that the board can understand. In most cases this means leaving marketing speak at the door. Econsultancy also state that marketers don’t have the luxury of claiming “I’m simply not a numbers person,” but they are still hired for their creative and strategic side.

The marketer at board level is also a split personality. To show credibility and strategic leadership, the report says that they need to fit into the mould of their peers at the table.

As advocates of the customer and custodians of creativity they also need to distil facts and figures and turn long-term goals into excitement and enthusiasm through the teams they lead. It would be hard to argue with this logic and the view that there are still too few marketers on the board. It looks as if it’s going to take some more time.