Photo by Vincent Battault on Unsplash

21st Century Marketing Leadership

Lessons from the past. Signposts for the future.

The view from the top

As so often, this week’s Marketing Society webinar, “21st Century Marketing Leadership”, crammed a remarkable amount of insight into way too little time. This was, nonetheless, mitigated by Sophie Devonshire’s firm yet as-ever-charismatic moderation, along with a focused, fast-moving format that created space for everyone to engage.

In the short, sharp inspiration slots that kicked the session off - three senior guest speakers were each given three minutes to outline three key pointers for marketing leadership - a number of priorities stood out and were picked up in the breakouts.

Julia Goldin, Chief Product & Marketing Officer and SVP at The LEGO Group emphasised diversity and inclusion, risk-taking and tolerance of failure, and the spirit of play. The risk point seems particularly well-made, especially during an era when uncertainty or underperformance on ROI in marketing are so rapidly sanctioned.

As I find so often, strategic marketing’s best kept secret, Tim Ambler, provides a snappy and heartening rejoinder: “Great marketers never know what to do. They just know what not to do.”

Trevor Johnson, Head of Marketing, GBS, EUI at TikTok, focused on three core attitudes that the firm has adopted as gospel. “Always Day One’ - what got you to here won’t get you to there - “The Builder’s Mindset” - don’t get pulled into the interior design until your foundations are fully in place, and the critical goal of “Radical Candour” - use plain language and bring facts, not assumptions. 

His point about the foundations resonated immediately around the group. Given the present Rugby World Cup, it’s perhaps useful to flag a popular aphorism in the sport, “earning the right to go wide”. Before you can sling the ball out to the backs to score another spectacular try, you need to win the ugly battle of the forwards. 

When not everyone has the appetite to revisit and challenge the fundamentals, a culture that allows us the space to step back and think is both precious and sadly all too rare.

Last but far from least, Rebecca Hirst, CMO of EY UK, emphasised the need for the marketer to think - and to act - like an “outlier”. While this is a more nuanced and multi-dimensional idea, requiring a lot more reflection than the very short time allowed, my immediate takeaway was the need to focus less on “the marketing itself”, and a lot more on the marketplace. 

The things we need to understand, and to make difficult decisions about, are to be found out there, not in here. Marketing spends too much time - again, understandably, given the pressure it’s under - thinking about itself.

So overall, an energetic and varied discussion, on a subject that’s central to marketing, and very close to both my work and my heart.

That said, as the Marketing Society takes this inquiry forward, can I suggest that another - to my mind crucial - further lens on the future of marketing leadership must be considered.

A very tough crowd

Stand-up comic legend Lenny Bruce used to say that if you want to know how you’re doing up there, turn around and take a look at the band. If they’re laughing, you know you’re good. This, of course, is because backing bands have seen and heard just about everything under the sun … They’re your toughest audience, by far.

The tough audience that marketing leadership is facing, the one that really matters, is made up of everyone who isn’t in marketing.

The difference here is between leading a marketing team (always a challenge, but at least most people understand your jokes!) and playing an acknowledged and respected enterprise leadership role, representing marketing across the business.

Two different conversations

The biggest commercial challenge faced by all marketing leadership is balancing two related but quite different currencies, we could say different types of value. Let’s think of this as two distinct conversations.

When we sit with our teams to review progress and plan what comes next, we’re mostly examining the degree to which our tactics are delivering against our marketing strategies and the associated budgets.

But when we meet with our non-marketing colleagues in the C-suite, we’re being assessed on whether our marketing budgets are delivering against the growth strategy for the business.

Two very different conversations. Two very different audiences. Two - possibly more - different currencies. And two entirely different sets of expectations.

We can’t confuse these two things. And we must work on how to pull them together.

To touch on the always-knotty subject of metrics, these are unlikely, in isolation, to ever be adequate as a solution to this conundrum. This is rarely because stakeholders don’t understand one or more metrics. It’s because behind every metric sits a measurement, and even more importantly, behind what’s being measured sits an idea of what is valuable, and needs to be evaluated.

Back to the value

This, I believe, is where the challenge of 21st century marketing leadership lands, and lands hard. If there’s one area where we’re in long-standing trouble, it’s in the perceived gap between where we invest, and the growth (or, two terms I increasingly tend to prefer, the prosperity and the resilience) of the businesses that pay for our work.

Going back to conversations and currencies, Job One for marketing leaders is surely to rebuild the fractured bridges that have in the past connected us to the rest of the business. 

The key currency here, to boil it right down, is made up of all the many critical types of value - customer, brand, enterprise, shareholder, stakeholder and more - that marketing has in the past directly driven, or at least significantly influenced, to balance and to deliver the short- and long-term commercial impacts that our toughest audience expects.

Looking back at our excellent webinar through this very demanding lens, if marketing leadership are to create the permissions for the behaviours that we headlined - the creative freedom of movement, the positive cultural attitude to risk, the time and space to get the foundations right and to truly represent the voice of the customer and the market - this is the problem that needs our most urgent attention.

Michael Bayler ( is a CMO specialising in technology and life sciences, and the founder and principal of The UNTHNKBL Academy, a leadership programme for senior marketers.

Read event review from Kev Chesters 


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