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From CMO to CEO: why confidence is key in making the initial leap

By Paul Evans | CEO

November 18, 2020 | 7 min read

In the first of a series of articles exploring the leap from chief marketing officer to chief executive, Vodafone’s former head of media turned Adgile boss Paul Evans discusses just what it takes to make the initial leap.

Marketers need to be brave and push myself beyond perceived boundaries in order to take the top seat

Marketers need to be brave and push beyond perceived boundaries in order to take the top seat, says Evans

My name is Paul Evans and I’m a 20-year international marketing and media specialist, having undertaken client-side leadership roles at AB-InBev, Kimberly-Clark and Xbox.

More recently I was global head of media at Vodafone, where I led the company’s marketing operations strategy, including defining its media technology partnerships, establishing new verification approaches and standards, and driving the in-housing of its search, social and programmatic media capabilities.

But in October 2020, I made the leap to join a TV data and effectiveness startup called Adgile, where I was appointed as its first global chief exec.

As a business and team, we value candour, transparency and honesty in the way we work, and so in that spirit I wanted to write a blog about this unique experience and the lessons I learn, sharing my journey with the industry – from chief marketing officer to chief exec.

Here’s how I started on my path from top marketer to the board room.

The C-word

I have always loved the idea of serendipity. It’s a beautiful word, conjuring up notions of chance, luck and good timing. The advice I give when it comes to career design is that you need to ’put yourself in the way of serendipity’, and I’ve had a couple of significant points in my career when timing and opportunity collided. Seizing the opportunity to live and work in China with my wife and 12-week-old baby was one, and was something we loved as an experience.

At the end of July 2020, I was presented with another serendipitous opportunity that I would have never imagined myself being worthy or even possibly capable of. Over the past 18 months I had worked with a number of startup businesses and enjoyed the mentoring experience immensely, but one had really captured my interest and that was Adgile.

I had been talking to the company for a while about making my support for its business more permanent, and considering how I might lead marketing for it going forwards as it sought to mature and accelerate its business. But on that day in July we sat down via Teams – as is the way during lockdown – and was straight out asked to be its first chief executive.

Most people who know me will know I’m rarely lost for words, but this was literally a moment where the pause was deafening, followed by ’ums’ and ’errs’ that replaced typically lucid articulation. I eventually pulled myself together enough to say that I’d need to think seriously about this and would come back to them after the weekend.

Confidence is everything

But why react this way? Why would someone who considers himself relatively ambitious and open to change and challenge be so hesitant? After all, I had been working towards finding the right startup business to join for many months, and I was looking for a C-suite leadership role – a chief marketing officer position, or possibly chief strategy officer. But it wasn’t the big ’C-word’ though that had led to me to lose the power of speech. It was confidence – or rather, a lack of it.

My response was to talk to some of my closest, trusted industry friends – and Google – for advice. One article did stand out for me as I looked for guidance – this one from The Drum – and was probably most influential in understanding this dilemma in confidence. And apparently I wasn’t on my own. Statistically, too few marketers make the step from chief marketing officer to chief executive, with a recent study from recruitment firm Heidrick & Struggles finding that only one-in-five (18%) of FTSE 100 CEOs were former marketers.

Another study from Deloitte hinted at some of the issues explaining this, where chief marketing officers were found to be the least likely to perceive themselves as high performers, with just 5% agreeing to this statement.

Two of the people who were interviewed for the article were the amazing Sherilyn Shackell, global chief executive officer at The Marketing Academy, and Cheryl Calverley, chief exec at direct-to-consumer (DTC) brand Eve Sleep – both of whom were kind enough to speak to me and offer insights on why confidence is such an problem for marketers in approaching the ’top job’.

We discussed that marketing is a discipline seemingly at a perpetual crossroads – whether this be the role and definition of the chief marketer or the dilution of the function driven by a clear absence of professional education, commercial rigour, effectiveness and accountability.

Digital trends and behaviours have then just driven a wedge through these issues, dividing marketing into a binary world of long v short term, and brand building v activation. With all this, it’s not unsurprising that marketing has a confidence problem.

Embrace fear and know your own purpose

So, back to me – what did I do after that weekend of reflection? As ever on my career journey, I would turn to my wife who – not having knowledge of the marketing industry we work in – has always been a brilliant ’co-pilot’ for me.

In line with the advice given to me by Sherilyn and Cheryl, this was a moment to be brave and push myself beyond perceived boundaries – making myself feel comfortable about being uncomfortable.

I reflected on a 50/50 rule I had for career choices where, by necessity, half of me should feel great about the opportunity and decision in front of me, but the other half should absolutely be shit scared! Things were starting to make sense.

But I also thought about purpose. In the 18 months since leaving Vodafone, I had consulted within the adtech space, seeking to elevate marketing practice from the ’colouring-in department’ designation that most businesses assign to B2B marketing departments, to one of a strategic capability – that can legitimately define and drive business value end to end, from engineering to product to culture to brand.

In many instances I was fortunate to work with brilliant teams at Adform, Freewheel and Hybrid Theory, to name a few, realising that exact agenda.

Here then in front of me at Adgile was an opportunity to do this first-hand – to show how a marketing mindset and rigorous approach can help grow the business and fuel the future of the TV industry it serves.

Without hesitation I said yes, and I’ve not looked back since.

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