Fair Exchange: Real power behind marketing decisions — CMO/CEO?
by Erna George. Starting my career as an intern and then as an assistant in brand-led organisations, the marketing authority levels were 100% clear. Brand managers made the call on small promotions (yes, with communication to senior team); marketing managers were responsible for total category growth and brand portfolio strategy, communications and so forth; and the marketing director (today better known as the CMO), at a brand level, would only be brought in on the really big strategic decisions (portfolio etc) and pieces of communication.
Many more layers
These days, there are more layers and, in my role as the marketing lead for my division, I am consistently interacting with the CMO and CEO. CMOs are having to bring the brand agenda’s into executive board meetings, and brand plans are reviewed and commented upon by multiple senior executives. The questions then become: Do all these layers strip out innovativeness and accountability? And does this become ‘brand management by committee’ and result in bland brand outcomes?
Now, it is true that if one’s CEO “grew up” in their career as a ‘money person’, then the books are interrogated from pillar to post. If they were a marketer, best believe brand strategy, communication strategy and packaging are scrutinised and suggestions are made. But the reality across the board is that CEOs have final accountability as the value of the brands are measurable — a tangible asset on the books. They can appreciate or depreciate, help build value and manage operating efficiencies. With multiple brands in the portfolio, some can be sold tore-invest in the core.
Brands are business, so CEOs watch brands, branding and their voice in the marketplace more than ever before. A while ago a Truworths Mother’s Day ad (failing, by many descriptions, to represent the majority of mothers by being too young, racy and Playboyish) caused a social media stink. When the media picked this up, it was not the brand manager who responded; it was the CEO, Michael Mark. Listening to him on Cape Talk, he was well-versed on the situation, acknowledged the inappropriate aspects and, while he admitted an error in placement, he also made the brand position clear that, although the ad was in poor taste for Mother’s Day, it would, for example, fit Valentine’s Day. The fire was removed from the situation and the DJ stated that the interview was one of the most-efficient responses he had had. Brand business handled well.
More heads often better than one
The opportunity, in this regard, is that more heads are often better than one, particularly on more subjective aspects such as packaging and advertising. Having someone not involved in the detail giving a view may help spot errors, see an alternate consumer takeout and help avoid messes. The reality is that the CEO is the one who has to answer to demanding shareholders and irate consumer stakeholders — I am not entirely sure whom I would rather face — possibly, I think, none!
The challenges are multiple. Brand teams often live in the detail of market context, brand-share movements, trade issues and competitor actions, and have developed a keen gut feel to build and judge strong mixes. They know the history, key attributes and levers for growth. While one sometimes cannot see the wood for the trees, acknowledging the benefit of a detailed understanding is key. Empowering these teams is often what leaves them feeling a level of ownership and accountability, and ultimately engaged. Without this, some marketers will simply abdicate their contribution with a sense of, “why bother, it will be changed anyway” and really good marketers (less likely to be “yes-people”) will probably leave for more flexible and fulfilling shores.
In addition, adding multiple layers to review and approval processes could result in lengthy timelines. CEOs and, to an extent, CMOs, need to be clear upon which areas they need to be involved in, and to what level of detail, so that teams are still galvanised into action and don’t feel bulldozed due to time pressure.
Process and roles
Be clear on process and roles: Who has authority, who needs to be involved and who holds the can? Sometimes marketers want to rush into being allowed to make decisions and be in the driving seat of the brand. Really think about whether you want to be the one facing the principle shareholder, explaining a loss in the share price, or facing a journalist about an ill-conceived ad or consumers about rubbish quality?
Similarly, CEOs or CMOs (or certainly most) didn’t get to the top by simply craving or wielding the power of having the final say or seeking glory for themselves. Most, I would think, realise the danger of dabbling in branding. From a pure time and focus perspective, senior executives appreciate they need to trust their teams and work together to develop the final dazzling solution. However, don’t be surprised if they get nervous when communication slows and the terms of engagement are not mapped out upfront.
My view is that, for this to work, multiple and varied experience levels in a managed process may build strong brands for a strong business. To manage the layered effect:
- Balance quality, detailed views with broad strategic views and fresh thinking by having with agreed-upon templates or clear judgement criteria, along with planned reviews with the CMO before engaging the CEO with a cohesive overview
- Balance the risk with not missing opportunities with a clear RACI that everyone buys into and practises (RACI = decision matrix of who is Responsible, Accountable, needs to be Consulted or Informed)
- Ensure strong and positive interactions and relationships and don’t take things too personally; this complexity is not going away, so best we find common-ground and enjoy the ride.
Less risky, yields success
Then have the basics in place, such as like brand positioning documents, brand plans etc as, with these clear guardrails, the ability to innovate and take a calculated risk becomes less risky and yields success. If the blend of business and brands can only offer benefits if well-considered, then positive partnerships will be the basis of the strongest brands into the future.
Erna George is the marketing executive of Pioneer Foods’ Cereals & Other division. She has worked on both client and agency sides with diverse brands and categories — from FMCG, alcohol and agriculture to financial services and entertainment — in countries across many geographies, including South Africa, Mozambique, Nigeria, Kenya, India, Philippines and Brazil. She contributes the monthly “Fair Exchange” column, concerning business relationships and partnerships in marketing and brandland, to MarkLives.