How to Survive as Group Marketing Director

I have been asked many times about this, most recently by an old colleague who was interested in my advice about whether he should accept a ‘promotion’ to be the new Group Marketing Director, in other words to move into the newly created role. It is tricky. It’s a fancy sounding title but a job that can cause a lot of stress, frustration and disappointment on all sides.

If there is a role for a Group Marketing Director it is normally because there are a number of other executive marketing directors across a group of companies, often, but not always, a multi-national group. So there will be divisional or local CEO’s and Marketing Directors in the mix. What, then, is the job of the Group Marketing Director? This is often very poorly defined and, perhaps as a consequence, has a very unclear degree of authority. I have filled the role twice in my career and worked with many GMD/CMO’s in large corporates during my consultancy days.

My first crack at this came in Unilever, my last position for them – no coincidence. I was the global leader for two product categories working in the centre as part of the staff team for the main board Unilever Director. This was over 20 years ago and Unilever has undergone many evolutions of management structure since then but basically my job was to develop and police a global marketing strategy. There was not much of a brief, my boss was a particularly taciturn man, so I was left to figure out exactly what this meant. Unilever was groping its way towards a global manufacturing strategy starting with Europe and in order to make this possible we had to harmonize – crunch into one shape – the various brands we had in my categories (dishwash, hard surface cleaners and fabric conditioners – very glamorous). This was not a welcome move among the local marketing directors and their bosses. One of them, boss of the French business, explained to his MD that under no circumstances was he to offer me any co-operation or assist in any way. He did this in front of me with a big smile on his face – a smile which faded somewhat when his MD, a good mate of mine, explained to him that I spoke pretty good French and had understood every word.

In fact I found this first role fairly easy. The strategy was not that complicated, the benefits of it were unarguable (several studies had shown that harmonizing the brands and moving to a European manufacturing strategy would double the profits of that division), and all the local marketing directors were my mates. I had recently been one of them, in charge of Spain. So they trusted me and we were able to make a sensible plan. The local bosses were more tricky, as I’ve said, but they all fell in line eventually when it was linked to their bonuses and/or they were replaced with people who were on message. Nevertheless I found the whole experience very boring, especially working in the, then, stultifyingly dull Unilever House. I was a brand marketer – I liked doing things not just talking about things.

My next opportunity to be a Group Marketer came when I was offered the newly created role at SABMiller Plc working for Graham Mackay in London. It carried a seat on the main executive board so there was implied authority to the title Group Marketing Director. However, the brief was still somewhat woolly and to be honest in 4 years I never did get to the bottom of it. I knew what the ‘Barons’ (the CEO’s of the regional businesses) expected, they just wanted a sexual advisor (“we’ll ask for your fucking advice when we want it”) but it conflicted with what I thought my boss and the business needed. Graham is the best CEO I have ever met and the lack of clarity was due not to any indecisiveness on his part. I was the first GMD and the business was evolving very fast on the back of some mega acquisition deals. I ended up doing 4 years in the job, one year more than I had originally agreed to, and in hindsight I wished I had stuck to the original plan. I found the last 18 months thoroughly miserable. It turns out the brief was to ensure the regional businesses raised their game in marketing in a business with predominantly local brands and a highly devolved management ethos. I was effectively the ‘burr in the saddle’ to get them to take marketing much more seriously which they did really well to their credit. My role and that of my team, which had started so well, became one of internal consultants and trainers.

I did not go into SABMiller blind. Before I took the job I consulted a few mates who had been in similar roles and listened to their advice. I even got a very valuable briefing from the great Sergio Zyman, Coke’s famous former CMO. He did the job twice and the second time around he had the sense to negotiate a very clear and powerful board mandate. His word on any aspect of marketing in any part of the world was law. His central marketing team – which he strengthened hugely – had the right to walk in to any Coke market, anytime, anywhere, and ask to see whatever they wanted. If they did not like it  – or Sergio did not like – it got changed.

Maybe that is a bit extreme, but the fact is ‘Group Marketing’ can be the end of a promising career. For it not to be, the issues that make the role so ambiguous need to be tackled.

So here is my formula for a successful Group Marketing Director. It requires getting totally clear on 4 issues:-

1.    What is the brief for Group Marketing – what constitutes success?
2.    How will this be measured?
3.    What’s in it for the local marketing teams – what are the implications?
4.    What’s the mandate – what authority do you have and how will conflict get resolved?

Start with the brief. What is the vision for marketing in the business, what is the agenda? Some vague idea about common standards of excellence and sharing best practice won’t cut it. Precisely what does the board want to achieve?
When that is sorted out you can move on to how it will be measured. What gets measured gets done and even if it can sometimes prove hard to measure precisely some aspects of marketing, there should nevertheless be some objective form of tracking the performance of Group Marketing.

Next, you need to tackle the implications for the local marketing teams. If they are expected to fall in line it must be clear what they get out of this process. If the answer is that they will find their jobs somewhat diminished to just execution then this must be confronted (as I understand it has been in Unilever). And then their bosses need to sign up for this (in my view, literally sign up) and have compliance made part of their bonus & appraisal.

Finally, what authority, in what areas, does the GMD have? If it is just implicit i.e. he reports to the boss and the boss will back him, well that’s something. But better still make it explicit – give the GMD accountability and responsibility. Don’t fudge this – it will always catch you out.

The best situation is, like Sergio, to have a really powerful mandate. The beauty is you then very rarely need to use it. Because every one knows you have the power, you can afford to be conciliatory, to listen, to understand and to be confident that you are having honest conversations. You can decide when to offer exemptions to certain aspects of ‘group marketing policy’. You can be reasonable. The worst situation is not to have a mandate and to behave as if you do. You come across as the typical ‘prick from head office’.

There’s lots more I could explain but I will leave it with these headlines. In my view I, or someone like me, should be used as a kind of coach-come-referee to both the CEO/Board and the Group Marketing Director, an objective but experienced (scarred) person who can offer the occasional voice of reason if the issues become too complex or intractable. But that is just an opinion. If the 4 issues are sorted out well upfront it should not be necessary to have a mediator. I just don’t trust that they ever are.

Finally, what is the difference between a CMO and a Group Marketing Director? In my view the former always has positional power and are responsible and accountable for the following:-
•    The health and growth of the business’ priority brands
•    Raising the marketing capabilities of the whole organization
•    Investing resource to explore new marketing tools and capabilities that will give the business competitive advantage (an example right now for many businesses would be digital marketing).

Is that what you thought a Group Marketing Director did? Then call them the CMO, it always was a better title because it positions him or her alongside the CEO and CFO, and everyone knows what they do.

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