Sideway steps can boost your career

Taking career gambles by moving to roles outside of marketing can pay off as new found skills can help gain future marketing positions.

Marketers are recognising that a linear approach to their careers, staying with one company and assiduously climbing the ladder of seniority, does not deliver the experience they need to adapt to changing consumer behaviour or to make the leap to the boardroom.

Claire Harrison-Church, commercial business unit director at Premier Foods, says: “Far too many marketers are focused on status and title, but stretching themselves is far more important.”

Since the economic downturn in 2008, there has been a dramatic change in marketers’ outlook. Not only has there been pressure on salaries, but the discipline itself over that time appears to have altered fundamentally.

Digital and mobile are no longer additional channels to manage but cornerstones of most brand activity. Organisations have restructured to match changing customer behaviour. Shifts in purchasing and media consumption have generated new markets and wiped out others.

Change is also occurring at a faster rate than previously. This challenges the accepted wisdom that the average senior marketer’s tenure of 15 to 18 months at a brand is not enough to see the full effects of their changes because any good marketing plan should be long-term.

When Marketing Week and sister brand Econsultancy published the Modern Marketing Manifesto in the summer of 2013, it sparked much debate about what it means to be a marketer and the skills senior marketers need today. One of the central tenets of the manifesto is that marketers must be more commercially aware if they and the brands they steward are to reach the highest echelons. The result is that marketers must do more than just marketing.

You have to take at least a 25-year view in what could be a 50-year career. You can’t get promoted ever 18 months

Marketing is not a siloed function

Chief executives expect their marketers to seek new challenges. Former Virgin Media marketing director Ashley Stockwell, who is now head of consultancy RubberBrand, took this principle to an unusual extreme. “Having led the rebrand of NTL Telewest to Virgin Media, I took the strange decision to become HR director. After approaching then chief executive Neil Burkitt, it took a month’s discussion before he allowed me to go for it,” he says.

Stockwell believed that to change the business culture the first thing that had to change was the employee culture. “Being able to see what happens was really interesting. After the company went through a tricky period, I gave the entire company Christmas Eve off. I was using creative thinking from my marketing experience to improve the internal brand and it got a positive response. But I had not taken into account that the call centres would have to remain open.” However, he gave them a day off in lieu.

Stockwell’s realisation that marketing is not a siloed function but rather its actions affect the entire organisation, particularly where spending decisions are concerned, is prevalent today.

His experience is echoed by Kay Boycott, chief executive of Asthma UK. One of her first job moves was from marketing to key account management; the role was initially sales but became customer management. “It gave me an insight into why the company [a retailer] should stock certain items. With that background, when you go back to more strategic, marketing roles you have more understanding of customers’ needs.”

She notes that an organisation’s sales role is more narrowly defined than marketing, which has to be “more about the whole package”.

Generalist, specialist or opportunist?

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Working for different industries gives marketers the chance to take a new approach to marketing

Boycott says that moving into areas outside marketing led to a realisation that her career path would be determined by personality type as much as skill set. “Having a marketing skill set makes you very focused on marketing output. I was never that sort of marketer.”

From this perspective, she explains that there are effectively two types of marketer: generalists and specialists. Boycott says she is a generalist. “I was always more interested in the strategy side and couldn’t have maintained interest in output. If you’re a specialist, you can.”

Paul Berney is managing partner and chief executive of mobile marketing consultancy mCordis. But his career has mostly focused on senior client-side marketing roles in the technology and engineering sector. He believes that retaining the specialist view while making a number of sideways steps led him to identify opportunities for the companies he worked for and his career path.

“I spent 10 years jealously looking at people who were on the usual path but then came to realise I had gained a lot from moving around,” he says.

Berney’s career began in a graduate scheme for car brakes manufacturer Ferodo. After reaching a level of seniority, his opportunistic streak became evident. Noticing that the company’s focus was on trucks and cars, with motorcycle customers treated as a sideline, he created a business plan to develop the motorcycle element, which effectively had him working as a marketing director of a start-up.

He explains: “It forced me to take a totally different approach. You have to be connected to the community and an enthusiast to get on in the motorbike industry. I had to learn to ride a motorbike to start with.”

Berney then saw the opportunity to build the segment further by joining Aprilia motorcycles. Although a well-known brand, it was untested in the UK market and compared to Ferodo, the team and financial support behind it was small. “Although I was nominally with the marketing and administration teams, I would find myself supporting retailers, unloading trucks and parts checking.” When the managing director had to take sick leave, Berney found himself running the company for six months. “Experiences such as this give you a totally different impression of how businesses are run and the part marketing plays.”

Critically, specialising in the motorcycle market did not define where Berney’s marketing strengths lay. It was the act of treating each new marketing project as an effective start-up that determined his career path. Although his subsequent move was back into a traditional senior marketing role at Israeli print company Indigo, his epiphany was that his real strengths lay in proposition development. Once again, he left a large company with a secure pay package and clear career prospects, this time to join a dotcom.

“I’ve realised over time that I’m better off being in a job I like doing and in a way I like to work. 
I get a sense that there is a coming world for marketers working on an associate basis where people hire you for specific skills. I’m a huge believer in working to strengths,” he says.

Chiming with Boycott’s insistence that being a generalist ultimately led her to being chief executive of Asthma UK, Berney says: “There isn’t a role for the specialist at a senior level. You have to instead be good at managing the specialists. It requires honesty with yourself and the business to recognise that the CMO cannot be expert in everything.”

An eye on the prize

Although the executives speak about risk and grasping opportunities, it would be more logical to conclude that they have reached their levels of seniority more by luck than by design. Yet each says that this could not be further from the truth. In fact, despite their diverse career trajectories, experience and current roles, they all share a common thread of forward planning.

“You have to take at least a 25-year view in what could be a 50-year career. You can’t get promoted every 18 months. When the rise up the ladder slows down, that is when you decide what you are aiming for,” Boycott notes.

There is a coming world for marketers working on an associate basis where you are hired for specific skills

Premier Foods’ Harrison-Church says: “I often say to the people I’m mentoring that they don’t spend as much time thinking about their career trajectory as they should. That said, if you over-think, you may end up doing less.” Indeed, she reveals that when she left her traditional senior role at Unilever, where she had worked for 15 years, she did not know what she was letting herself in for. “I might have talked myself out of it if I had had time to think,” she says.

For some, taking time to think is critical to moving on to the next stage of their career. More senior level marketers are taking sabbaticals that deliver no marketing experience. Although a gap year is seen as giving young adults more perspective on the wider world, how do senior marketers avoid giving the impresson that a sabbatical is less about an extended holiday and more about bringing something extra to the table?

Jane Walker, head of marketing at Domino’s Pizza, took a sabbatical to travel in her mid-30s before continuing a corporate career where she had senior marketing roles at Whitbread, Costa Coffee and Carphone Warehouse. She acknowledges that singing to dolphins and teaching children in Cambodia had little to do with career progression. But she says that senior-level marketing is not just about strategic skill: “It reaffirmed who I was, made me more self-aware of how my behaviour affected others and instilled an appreciation of what’s important in life.

I want to succeed and deliver results but at the same time enjoy doing it and have a healthy work-life balance. Hopefully that makes me a better all-rounder and a more effective manager.”

Others who have trodden this path have had a bumpier ride. Justine Noades, former head of brand, PR and social at Lastminute.com notes that returning from sabbatical at the same time as the collapse of investment bank Lehman Brothers (see Opinion) was bad timing from a career point of view. The key was to find the opportunity: “I’ve always actively sought variety, even when my career has been safe and buoyant. 
I left Nestlé for The Body Shop because I wanted to experience retail. It is difficult for someone who isn’t versatile and flexible and it is important not to underestimate how tough embracing this risk can be. But the flip side is that your career is far more interesting and fun,” she explains.

Between overthinking and taking a leap of faith there is a balance to be struck. “There comes a point when the time you have invested in a single area will lead people to pigeonhole you in a certain way. If you are a specialist, this may be fine. If you are a generalist, you need to look at what is outside your core role that can extend you. But to do that you have to accept risk and define your core role first,” Boycott insists.

RubberBrand’s Stockwell agrees that you need to understand where you want to be long-term and then manage your diversions accordingly. He says: “You need to work out an escape route before you start. Be clear about how long you are willing to devote to your new area. If you do anything for more than a year outside of marketing, then there’s a sense you have changed your career. The trouble with technology and marketing is that it is fast moving.”

Grasping an opportunity for change

Justine Noades, former head of brand, PR and social at Lastminute.com explains how she turned a career crossroads into an opportunity to broaden her experience.

I have actively sought out breadth in my career. I was lucky to start out at Nestlé where the philosophy was to move people around departments, even at a senior level. Even though I was junior at the time, I could see how skills were being transferred. Even subsequently spending seven years at Marks & Spencer found me taking a core marketing skill set and moving it across different markets from fashion to homewares and food.

Despite the variety within these corporate environments, you could say I had a defined marketing career path until 2008 where fate intervened to set me on a new route. I had taken a sabbatical to learn Spanish but my return coincided with the Lehman Brothers crash.

It was bad timing. It was so difficult to get a job. Retailers were going bust or restructuring and the only people who were being recruited were either junior to mid-level marketers, or those in digital. I didn’t have [digital experience].

During that period, you had to be flexible to get back into the marketplace. Senior roles were few and far between and many were taking salary cuts. My priority was getting a digital skill set under my belt so I was prepared to look at contracts. Taking the position with Lastminute.com as maternity cover, even at a 15 to 20 per cent salary drop, meant I could integrate the digital element into my experience and approach companies that are now looking for that breadth.

Companies may be reluctant to hire someone who at first appears ‘overqualified’ in other areas, noting that the clear motivation for the applicant is to gain experience rather than an abiding desire to remain at the company for the long-term. However, the fixed contract gave Lastminute.com the confidence that they wouldn’t be wasting their energy on someone bound to leave while benefiting from my broader experience.

Justine Noades: CV

February 2013 - December 2013: head of brand marketing, PR & social, Lastminute.com


2011 - 2012: marketing director, Millie’s Cookies

2009 - 2011: head of marketing & product development, Iconiq Drinks Company Ltd

2008 - 2009: sabbatical


2007 - 2008: head of marketing, restaurants, Whitbread


2001 - 2006: various senior marketing roles, Marks & Spencer

1998 - 2000: head of development and marketing, Altonwood


1995 - 1998: category manager, The Body Shop

1991 - 1995: brand manager, Nestlé UK

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