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Prized marketing leaders

With awards season upon us, what qualities do the people behind the winning brands share?
Sometimes marketing will need to fight its corner and those fights can be brutal
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards is the 2017 PPA business columnist of the year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

We’re midway through the industry awards cycle. The Marketing Society Excellence Awards and the Cannes Lions have come and gone, but it won’t be long after the summer break before we get our frocks and bow ties out again for the Marketing New Thinking Awards and the APG Creative Strategy Awards.

Behind the individual winners – even those who step up from the agency side – will be teams of marketers who have played some part in the success: digging into data, trawling the competition, scrabbling around for budget – or sacrificing theirs for the greater good. And behind each of them will be a marketing leader who has set out a vision and shaped the team to bring it to fruition.

Sometimes these leaders will be directly fêted themselves – as with the Marketing Society’s Marketing Leader of the Year award, won this year by Barnaby Dawe of Just Eat (pictured) – but, more often, they’ll be there as a quiet, determined force in the background.

What makes a great one? What are the qualities that you’d most want from the person carrying the ultimate responsibility for marketing in the cut-and-thrust of the modern corporation? Here are the assets it would take to get on to my shortlist.

1. Cautious courage
It isn’t an oxymoron. A stunt artist embarking on a routine nobody has done before is undoubtedly brave but not stupid: he or she will take every precaution, look at every angle, assess every random factor before passing the point of no return. In marketing, there is no greatness without boldness, but the astute leader will possess both the numeracy and the rigour to make the calculations that accompany that too-often loosely bandied term “calculated risk”.

2. Dirty hands
EasyJet chief executive Carolyn McCall literally sets the example here: she goes up and down the cabin with the bin bag every time she takes one of her airline’s flights. It’s a dirty job and there’s no-one better to do it – to keep tabs on what customers are saying, to get a feel for what employees do and for the sheer, earthy symbolism of it. Great marketing leaders need to have that knack of both raising sights – seeing things from above – but also getting hands-on when it matters. Few pull it off.

Person holding award3. Business black-belt
It goes without saying that a marketing leader ought to be a master in marketing. But the greats know their way around finance, operations, sales and human resources – and know how to see business from those points of view. That means sometimes reining back on cherished plans, for the corporate good. Nevertheless, the martial arts allusion is deliberate: sometimes marketing will need to fight its corner and those fights can be brutal. You need someone who knows the adversary’s strengths – and how to deftly turn them to advantage.

4. Unfashion sense
There will always be the latest thing – and there will always be urgent calls from the team to steer resources towards it. Leaders have to be prepared to resist the trend – not to automatically say “no” but to ask “why?”, and to stick to less fashionable methods if the answers aren’t forthcoming. An extension to this one is having the guts to admit when you jumped on to a trend and got it wrong – as Procter & Gamble’s Marc Pritchard recently did when confessing that the advertiser’s “precision” digital approach had “cost us customers”.

5. Belief, belief
A great marketing leader – a great leader, full stop – will believe in something uplifting, beyond the transactional, and will not be afraid to repeat it.

I could also make a plea for generosity of spirit – to say thank you, to remember that people have personal lives, to tolerate offbeat ways of working.

Let’s welcome the financial generosity to enter for those awards shows too. Not because they are an end in themselves – you don’t have to be a leader to see the folly in that – but because they’re a bit of fun and reward in the marketer’s routine slog.

And, win or lose, they’re a motivator – because even when you come away emptyhanded, there’s always that burning sense of “next year I’ll show them: it’ll be me up there”.

Awards shows

Cannes Lions
This international festival of creativity has been going since 1954 and this year drew 41,170 entries in 24 categories. Controversy is rarely far from Cannes, and the decision of Publicis Groupe boss Arthur Sadoun to ban his agencies from attending next year has got tongues wagging.

Marketing Society Excellence
Designed to “set the standard for excellence in marketing”, these awards are not for the fainthearted, requiring entry submissions of 2,000 words. Winning case studies are published and some winners are invited to present at a “best-practice showcase event”.

Marketing New Thinking
Campaign’s latest awards initiative, in association with Sky Media, is all about marketing innovation and “making brands fit for the future”. The judges gather together this week – and I’m looking forward to being one of them!

APG Creative Strategy
The theme for the Account Planning Group’s 2017 awards is “transformational thinking”, which it claims is the “product of great planning and strategy”. To win big, entrants will have to demonstrate a novel approach or prove that their work had a “transformational effect”.