Marketers too siloed to become CEOs, says Merlin boss

Merlin Entertainments CEO Nick Varney warns that marketers are being siloed too quickly to become well-rounded, senior executive material.


Varney has led fast-growing visitor attraction company Merlin Entertainments since its creation in 1999 and is a former senior marketer with experience at a number of FMCG companies.

The international business, which owns Legoland, Sea Life, Madame Tussauds, Alton Towers and the London Eye (pictured), posted a rise of 8.5% in underlying pre-tax profit last year.

Varney says that only the finance and marketing departments can produce chief executives because individuals in those functions develop the broadest view of the whole operation.

However, he believes young marketers are no longer being exposed to other departments, such as the sales force, or disciplines such as market research or pricing, and that they are catapulted too early into advertising or online roles, for instance.

“There are very few marketers below the senior level who get to see the whole picture. And even at a senior level, few marketers carry the responsibility for profit and loss.”

Varney continues: “People in marketing roles get siloed very quickly these days.”

He says marketers that come for an interview talk about the campaigns they have worked on, but are unable to talk about sales figures because they say that sales is not their part of the business. “That was never the case when I was in my marketing prime.”

Varney points out that the marketing function has “that absolutely pivotal consumer insight” and stresses: “If you are in a consumer business, it really should be the marketers that gravitate to the role of chief exec.”

Readers' comments (9)

  • I think Nick makes a very valid point. The only issue with this though is that marketing directors are very rarely on the board of the UK's top brands. If marketing isnt represented at board level then there is always going to be a barrier.

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  • I would have to agree with you. I think young marketers are sticking to their particular aspect withing the larger marketing field that naturally should fuse research, sales, ROI, strategy whilst communicating with other departments within an organisation to obtain a greater understanding and root up issues that would otherwise be left unheard. This may be due to budget cuts but I believe the onus is on the marketer to get information from other silos within an organisation.

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  • This article is very true.

    I am working with major companies on helping them see 'the bigger picture' that young marketers with too many degrees and not enough opportunity to think beyond process, can no longer see. I dont blame such people. However, in today's crazy world
    where HR people are so process-driven that they look only at 'ticked' box
    qualifications rather than experienced vision, the future looks very bleak

    Marketing is becoming dominated by 'best practice' as per textbooks - You
    end up with lots of qualified marketers who can no longer think - not because
    they are not intelligent - but because:
    A) They are to paranoic about having an opinion and so losing their jobs.
    B) Are trained to become process-managers.

    For example - I spoke at an international social media conference recently.
    Everyone spoke about using exactly the same metrics - as everyone else
    simply because everyone else used the same metrics.

    If KPIs were on a PPT that was delivered by someone who they beleived
    must know what they are talking about - because of their title - rather than
    real insights - it must be true

    At some point someone, somewhere will point out that the emporer is not
    wearing any clothes.

    Jonathan Gabay

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  • I completely agree with these comments. However, I do not always think it is down to the individual marketer.

    I have been siloed into not only areas of marketing, but also specific sectors. Then when I try to change direction slightly HR managers are not even willing to consider your broader skills and experience. As Jonathan says they are ticking boxes.

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  • I would agree with Nick in some respects as I went through his school of straegic and commercial marketing and as a result sit on the Board as a marketer for a number of retail and leisure PLC's.
    I have also noticed a cloning of MARCOM's specialists who are unable to justify their spend and deliverables and can only explain their campaigns in terms of awards and brand awareness.
    I feel that the route of the problem lies partly in the lack of interest in 'numbers' interest by the young marketers but it is also a result of companies wanting tailormade CV's with deep channel knowledge as opposed to strategists. Solid consumer insight and strategic thinking can be applied to any media channel.
    Head hunters and recruitment consultants must share the blame for this phenomenon as they are always seeking an easy sell. They churn the perfect fit without looking at the core skillset and applying that in another sector. They seem more intent in making a speedy commission and pleasing the client rather than truly understanding what the client really needs and the candidates' core competancies.
    Classic example is that you rarely see talent crossing from agency to client, fmcg to retail, fashion to food, etc. This is the basis to developing a rounded individual and to "thinking outside the box".
    In the current ecconomic climate having well rounded, commercially astute but CONSUMER FOCUSED marketers at the Board is key.

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  • I would agree that anyone at the top of an organization would need the skills to know where the money is going as well as how to sell their product. What I see missing here is the operational background to make it all work. It's unfortunate when the marketers and advertisers don't see what a mess they can make for the people who are actually interacting with the guests. That is one of your greatest marketing opportunities - when a guest has a great experience with an employee. If the employee is bogged down by a cumbersome and complicated process, the guest service (and thus word of mouth advertising) will suffer.

    Thanks for letting me offer a different view!

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  • All of these comments ring true for me, but I think the nature of human beings needs to be acknowledged too. Marketing is relatively unique in that it requires creativity, financial savvy and strategic thought which are often opposing traits. To get this package is tricky as often people sway more towards creative thinking or data processing (science if you like!) but are not balanced in both. I just think there are relatively few perfect candidates for this level of position. They are out there though. In the meantime, a job share or team mentality between people sharing these skills is necessary.

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  • Great comments all, especially those of Jonathan Gabay. I had the good fortune of working for a top creative agency out of which I was hired by my top client to head up their marketing. This gave me the opportunity to get the kind of broad knowledge and KPI-focus that is being discussed.

    Of particular benefit to me in the client role was the opportunity to be involved in everything from distribution development -both direct and indirect - product development, pricing, customer you name it. From that industry I moved to one yet completely different (commercial real estate securities) for four years but experimenting with nascent social media was taboo. Today, "social media expertise" requirements for CMO positions have become disproportionate to their role in the media mix, yet keep individuals like myself and many others from bringing their strategic thinking developed over years to bear on the firm.

    The lack of marketing understanding by internal recruiters, many of whom are far junior in business experience than the candidates they're charged with recruiting, is a huge problem that is invisible to most CEOs. In fact, I'd say novice or unsophisticated HR practices in today's employer-driven marketplace can are doing quite a bit of harm to a firm's brand.

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  • I completely agree with the points made in this article and in other comments and feel this issue is particularly prevalent large companies.

    I think that part of the problem is caused by vanity among many graduates who underestimate the value of the experience to be gained from working in an SME and just want to be able to tell their Facebook friends that they have a very important job and an enviable career working for a household name!

    I started my career in an SME and spent six years working up from the bottom. I decided to leave after six years to 'broaden' my experience and took-up a coveted specialist role for a bluechip. I was instantly disappointed!

    I was shocked every day by the blinkered perspective of almost everyone around me. Despite frequently throwing around phrases in meetings such as 'holistic approach' most people could barely articulate the value of their own team's contribution to the business never mind that of other specialist teams within the marketing department.

    I stayed a couple of years, but was very glad to go back to working for an SME. Perhaps it doesn't look so sexy on social networking sites, but at least you can really see and assess the impact you're making to a business and its place in the market. And, best of all, you're not surrounded by those who progress by hiding their incompetence behind management-speak as this tends to be laughed out of the building.

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