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The inconvenient truth: McDonald’s choice of marketer as CEO is an exception

By Simon Martin, Chief executive officer

February 2, 2015 | 5 min read

How do you make a room full of marketers feel uncomfortable? Ask them why the discipline doesn’t have an automatic place in corporate boardrooms.

Simon Martin

At Oystercatchers Club’s bi-monthly event in January, this Groundhog Day debate had renewed vigour as panellists gave, at times, searingly honest answers.

Whether marketers actually need to be on the board was a moot point, drawing a ‘clash’ of views, according to press reports.

According to The Drum, this difference of opinion was between Barclays’ head of brand, reputation and citizenship, David Wheldon, and United Biscuits' CEO and former marketer, Martin Glenn.

But with respect to the journalists present, was there an actual ‘clash’ of arguments? Listening from my seat in the stalls, I heard both Wheldon and Glenn making very valid, but not mutually exclusive points.

1. Marketers need to have an ‘external orientation’

Wheldon observed that while “marketers have spent years bemoaning the fact that they aren’t on the board... it’s probably because they just haven’t been good enough”. Ouch!

So what does ‘good enough’ mean?

If marketers have general business experience, Wheldon argued, they will have that broader market perspective deemed necessary for board members.

The core issue Wheldon touched upon is that many marketers are functional, executional experts, and stay in marketing for long periods of time.

Really successful marketing functions possess an external and business focus, rather than indulging in marketing-for-marketing’s sake.

Take Unilever’s chief marketing officer, Keith Weed, who is leader of the firm’s plan to double revenue while halving its environmental impact. If anyone embodies the CMO’s increasingly strategic role, it is he.

Marketing needs to be constantly adapting to changing consumer behaviour and shifting opinions, and as Martin Glenn explained, the marketing discipline should be leading that thinking. Being “good enough” means being externally oriented – the point Glenn and Wheldon were both making.

2. Marketing is a mindset, not just a function

Martin Glenn went as far as declaring that some great marketing firms don’t have dedicated marketing departments.

I concur, long believing that successful companies have leaders with a marketing-oriented view of the world.

Consider the success of Apple: the company’s co-founder, Steve Jobs, was an excellent marketing leader, yet not a marketer by training.

Marketing can live and breathe in a corporate boardroom, without a ‘marketer’ present. So back to Glenn’s argument: it takes a great marketer with an external – ie, consumer, financial, competitor, macro-economic – focus to justify being in that boardroom.

3. How some – albeit few – marketers make it to the top

Finance, rather than marketing, has traditionally been the discipline of those who lead organisations. But what if you manage to combine both disciplines?

Let’s look at the career trajectory of McDonald’s new CEO, Steve Easterbrook, the restaurant chain’s former chief brand officer. ‘Marketer promoted to CEO’? Yes, to a point. Easterbrook is, in fact, the embodiment of both Wheldon’s and Glenn’s arguments.

Easterbrook has that ‘external orientation’ in spades, having spent 20 years climbing his way up the ladder at McDonald’s, starting at PWC, then to McDonald’s as financial manager, rising to senior executive vice president, before finally being promoted to chief executive.

He also has Glenn’s desired external orientation and brand perspective, being promoted to the newly created role of McDonald’s global chief brand officer in 2010 and months later, made president of McDonald's Europe, responsible for some 7,000 restaurants in 39 countries.

Leaving the company in 2011 to gain C-Suite experience as chief executive of UK chain Pizza Express, Easterbrook then served as chief executive of Wagamama. Returning to McDonald’s in June 2013, Easterbrook took up the reins again as global chief brand officer.

To the point about marketing tenure, Easterbook didn’t linger long in marketing.

I can think of only a handful of marketers who have, or are willing to, put themselves through the uncomfortable step changes evident in Easterbrook’s CV.

That’s the awkward issue for the marketing discipline – but also its opportunity.

Simon Martin is founder and chief executive of OLIVER, which you can follow on Twitter @olivermkting

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