The key attributes of today’s marketing leaders


Leadership The past 18 months have been a test of leadership. There is no business in the UK that has not been touched by the turmoil of the pandemic, from closing stores and rationalising product lines to furloughing staff, switching to remote working and pivoting at speed towards digital.

The fact the marketing world has responded with such resilience and adaptability is a source of celebration, as Covid-19 has revealed essential leadership characteristics needed to thrive in 2021 and beyond.

Marketing Week’s 2021 Top 100 most effective marketers, in partnership with Salesforce, showcases the impact and influence of the UK’s leading marketers, highlighting just what it takes to succeed in today’s climate.

Marketing leaders are undoubtedly in the spotlight as businesses look for a route out of the pandemic. More than half of marketers (56%) responding to Marketing Week’s 2021 Career and Salary Survey say there is a marketer on their company’s leadership team, a far more common occurrence in larger businesses of more than 250 employees (71.4%) than in SMEs (38%).

With marketers in leadership roles across a large proportion of companies, they need to take into consideration not only the demands of the business, but also those of their direct reports. Just 29.4% of marketers responding to the 2021 Career and Salary Survey say remote working has had a ‘somewhat positive’ or ‘very positive’ impact on their relationship with their manager.

With all these issues in play, Eve Sleep’s former CMO and now CEO Cheryl Calverley cites embracing ambiguity as a “powerful attribute” of marketing leaders. Being comfortable dealing with uncertainty is something marketers are used to, she says, because they spend their lives forecasting the future.

“Being able to bring living with ambiguity and how you navigate ambiguity with more confidence to the boardroom, team and organisation is something that marketing leaders can do, and that I would look for,” Calverley explains.

I view marketing as the only leadership function industry in the world.

Sherilyn Shackell, The Marketing Academy

Going hand-in-hand with accepting ambiguity is the ability to deal with volatility. The pandemic, pressing issues surrounding climate change, the turmoil caused by Brexit and the changing world of work all mean the world has never been so unpredictable.

“Boardrooms have never faced more ambiguity in the way they are having to look at their business. For a lot of functions – if you are a finance manager, if you are an HR manager, if you are an operations manager – that is really difficult,” Calverley points out.

“You have never been asked to work in a world, which is so unpredictable. Whereas as a marketer, you are completely used to it. It’s your bread and butter.”

The Eve CEO believes marketers bring a sense of confidence to the business that ambiguity is not as scary as it might first appear. Alongside this appreciation of unpredictability, marketing leaders have never needed to be more customer-centric than they do today. This means dialling up their sense of empathy and making understanding what the customer is thinking and feeling their first instinct, Calverley adds.

“Over the past 20 years I feel marketers have been pulled further and further away from [customer empathy] being their core thought process and instead much more towards data optimisation,” she says.

“Thinking human-first is going to be so core to navigating the ambiguity of the next five to 10 years.”

Being human is one of the key leadership skills identified by marketer and coach, Abigail Dixon. Author of The Whole Marketer, Dixon believes a great marketing leader is authentic, honest and prepared to show their vulnerability. In fact, a personal understanding of what motivates you as a human has become even more important in the context of Covid-19.

Marketing Week Top 100 2021: We reveal the UK’s most effective marketers

“I always say you can only help others to the extent to which you know yourself. If you don’t know what you value, what’s important to you, what drives you and what you’re like to be around on a great day – as well as what you’re like on a not so great day – it’s going to be really hard for you to be able to understand what others in your team are going to need,” says Dixon.

“The first step for me is, do leaders possess the level of personal understanding to be able to understand themselves and their own behaviours, but also the others in their team and what they value on a deep-rooted emotional level?”

She points out that the concept of ‘working like a woman’ coined by retail expert and agency founder Mary Portas, with its focus on being nurturing and empathetic, is needed more than ever. Dixon believes nurturing leaders can appreciate their teams are running on empty, having already felt overwhelmed pre-pandemic due to the breadth of their roles, increased accountability, commercial responsibility and the need to upskill.

“They were already juggling a bad work/life balance, building PowerPoint decks at 8pm after the kids are in bed. That was already the norm. That was before a pandemic when a lot of marketers have had to pivot. They’re also being tasked with the Covid recovery, and rightly so, but they’re doing so on a really empty tank,” she notes.

In the context of potential burnout, for a leader to show empathy and be relatable often requires showing a degree of vulnerability. This way, Dixon says, people who are feeling overwhelmed know they are not alone, which helps them get the support they need.

“A great marketing leader is a leader that has that level of personal understanding and is committed to growing the individuals in their team, not just their team as a whole,” she adds.

True influence

In the opinion of leadership expert Thomas Barta, Covid has magnified the challenges faced by businesses pre-pandemic, not least the need to rebuild and grow at speed. For this reason, brands looking to thrive, as well as those hoping to pivot to digital, need marketers more than ever.

“Marketers have always been drivers of digitisation in firms. That has accelerated a lot and now we have two types of marketers – the ones who are being the drivers and the ones who got taken over because other people did it for the marketers,” he points out.

While the importance of digital is key, Barta believes marketers’ biggest concern right now is actually imposter syndrome. He identifies a “power gap” in business, driven by the fact marketers feel their interest in longer-term growth means their peers do not always trust them. Covid, Barta claims, has magnified these feelings.

For this reason, he believes business leaders must realise that the self-confidence of many marketers has suffered and think about ways to rebuild it.

Data from the 2021 Career and Salary Survey reveals 64.8% of marketers feel confident they can influence change in their organisation. This number rises to 70.5% among male marketers, compared to 60.9% of female marketers. Marketers in SMEs are more likely to feel confident in their ability to drive change (71%) than their peers in large organisations (59.6%).

Thinking human-first is going to be so core to navigating the ambiguity of the next five to 10 years.

Cheryl Calverley, Eve Sleep

Founder and CEO of The Marketing Academy, Sherilyn Shackell, is a firm believer in holistic leadership and the need for better leaders, in every context. She points to the importance of leadership not just in terms of managing your direct reports, but also marketers managing those “to the side of them and above them”.

Shackell believes that after everything everyone has been through over the past 18 months, if marketers are able to dial up their leadership capabilities they will thrive. If not, they will fail to make an impact.

“I am talking about leadership holistically. But you have to understand that I view marketing as the only leadership function industry in the world. Because marketing is about influence and that is all leadership is about,” she argues.

“Leadership is about influence. It’s not about your job title or running a team, or any of that shit. It’s about having an impact on the way another person acts or chooses.”

Shackell points to the “proper” leadership shown by global brands throughout the crisis, from Reddit enabling staff to work from anywhere and Nike giving its office employees a week off to ‘destress’, to Airbnb offering space for Afghan refugees and Formula One developing ventilators at the height of the first Covid wave.

“That’s a huge leadership statement, ripple effect, cultural shift, everything. You’ve got to feel respect for companies that do that,” she adds.

Showing meaningful leadership also comes down to who is going to protect the business and lead the turnaround, says Dixon. If marketing leaders can clearly demonstrate their ability to protect the brand and drive growth then they will gain the confidence of the organisation, she states, especially as they have proved their worth in the crisis by pivoting into new sectors, products and revenue streams.

For Dixon, effective leadership in 2021 comes down to a personal understanding of your values, seeing your team as fully rounded individuals and prioritising the empathy needed to develop deep-rooted emotional connections with consumers. Ultimately, she advises marketing leaders to consider what type of leader they want to be.

“Not the leader I experience, not the leader the business thinks I am, but the leader I want to be,” says Dixon. “Those people who are already connected with who they are and are able to show that level of empathy, understanding, kindness and vulnerability are the ones who have managed to look after their team much better.”

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