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From CMO to CEO: modern leaders must equate marketing with business strategy

Vodafone's former head of media turned Adgile boss Paul Evans charts his journey from CMO to CEO, imparting lessons for other marketers along the way.

'Marketing shouldn't be positioned not as a communications function on the periphery of an organisation' / Pexels

In the third installment of his CMO ot CEO column, Paul Evans ponders how putting marketing strategy at the heart of his business makes for better leadership.

One of my favourite industry quotes is from Peter Drucker, the American-Austrian management consultant who said: ”Because the purpose of business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two – and only two – basic functions: marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are costs. Marketing is the distinguishing, unique function of business.”

I’m not so certain I agree with the “all the rest are costs” part, but this somewhat rare statement in support of marketing at the centre of business has always appealed to me, given my 20+ year career across category, brand and media marketing leadership positions.

It was also one of the many things that crossed my mind when being asked to take on the role of chief executive at Adgile a few months back – the idea of being able to realise Drucker’s truth. In this ideal, marketing is positioned not as a communications function on the periphery of an organisation, but rather as a business strategy and leadership force that addresses all aspects of management and decisioning, bringing with it a clear and unwavering commitment to customer needs and value.

Innovation can inspire

This narrative coincides with rising negative sentiment in the industry towards management consultancy leadership styles and practice. Elon Musk has probably been the most vocal protagonist in this area, with this recent Wall Street Journal interview seeing him blame formulaic business school approaches for a lack of industry innovation.

Musk claims that value creation – for shareholders as well as customers – won’t happen in an Excel sheet, reviewing historical financial dimensions. But rather, he says these moments of magic exist where business leaders converge on sales calls, meet with the industry, take insights from unmet needs and create an environment for risk-taking and brave experimentation.

So what about me? What has my journey been from marketer to chief exec so far? My natural style is more considered and reflective, and I tend to lead through context, culture and behavioural change (see my last column). Saying all that – and with startup pace – we’ve made some great things happen in a relatively short space of time, including delivering a new value proposition and doubling-down on our innovation and partnership roadmap.

I’ve been lucky enough to work with a brilliant leadership team who have a shared ambition to do the right thing for the TV industry, brands and advertisers – and this marketing focus has guided everything we do.

A different perspective

But here’s been the interesting thing for me. What I’ve listed above feels quite natural as outputs for any experienced marketer – one who considers their role as being above and beyond communications.

Where I have found my own leadership transition to be both significant and surprising has been in areas that I would have considered alien to me in my previous life. I’m now having to think about cap tables, ESOP schemes, P&Ls and balance sheets, as well as IP, board communication and people development. Taking on board these considerations has been significant and surprising, in the sense that I have been able to apply myself to these very different tasks and initiatives with a marketing brain and instinct, and look at them differently.

Take organisational structures. As an ex-marketer, I don’t identify these in line items of costs, but instead I look at how that individual role creates value or solves problems for our end customers. I’m not looking for efficiencies or incrementalities, but rather effectiveness in collaboration and opportunities to support our cultural values across the business. Decisions about people become more logical when viewed through a lens of investment, not cost too.

I guess in summary, my personal move to chief has been challenging in some ways, but at the same time it has also felt quite a natural role to step into – because of my marketing experience, rather than in spite of it – and I’m loving this journey.

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