Can Marketing stand out? And do Marketers want to?

In the past, successful managers were those who fitted in.  In the future, successful managers will be those that stand out, and enable their organisations to do so too. 

So how can marketers and marketing stand out and gain influence into executive strategy making conversations as well as to key decision-making processes?  And what skills, knowledge and behaviours will be necessary to support that transition?

In considering these questions, this blog covers the following:

  • The market and customer needs (in this case the challenges facing the senior executive team)
  • A look into the world of a new breed of manager, one who is a customer champion and who already holds such a senior position and has strategic influence
  • The implications of these insights for marketers seeking greater influence, in terms of skills, knowledge and behaviours
  • Finally we offer some further information and next steps

Senior Management Challenges – Your Market

Like all good marketing professionals we need to begin with the market, and identify needs. In this case, what are the business priorities, how are these changing, and where does this overlap with the marketing remit? Our previous article (see Cambridge Marketing Review Issue 8, Spring 2014) covered this is some detail, but it is useful to reiterate some of the key points here.

To sum up the current state of play, many businesses are still managing to keep their customers, shareholders and investors happy, but there are growing concerns about how long this can be sustained. A survey of over 1,200 global executives (Bain & Co. 2013) revealed that a massive 55 per cent are concerned about their ability to meet future earnings targets.

The scale of this challenge is made worse by a growing recognition (albeit rather slowly given the risks involved) that the future will not look like the past, or as a psychologist would say ‘revert to type’.

Our own research (copy available upon request) has also identified a growing dissatisfaction with finance-driven techniques such as cost control and financial engineering as confidence wanes in their ability to deliver the sustainable performance and results that business (and their investors) are demanding.

We also found evidence of a growing stress between current activities and desired results in relation to the market-related performance in areas such as customer retention, loyalty, innovation and differentiation. This should be a natural domain of the professional marketer and offers new and exciting opportunities for marketers who are prepared to stand out.

This level of uncertainty is not a comfortable position for senior decision makers, a point that is supported by another recent IBM survey of global CEOs. These business leaders were prepared to acknowledge the need to transform their organisation and even its business model in order to improve their performance, but were also willing to admit that they are far less clear on what to transform it to, or indeed how.

In previous blogs we also talk about the importance of managers, including marketers, who have a keen eye on the future. These managers know that future success will require the ability to adapt themselves, their thinking and their company to a different and constantly changing business environment. As companies cannot afford to follow the pack – they will need the courage to stand out.

A further finding from a London Business School study however presents uncomfortable news for the marketing profession. For, whilst CEOs believed the biggest business challenges have their roots in the market, overall, they don’t consider that their marketing people currently have the skills to address them.

Of course, where the term ‘marketing’ has become synonymous with marketing communications, this presents an extra set of challenges.

So, if this is the strategic context and these are the strategic challenges, let’s go back to our opening questions. What does any of this tell us what skills, knowledge and behaviours are needed to gain strategic influence and engage at senior executive level? And how does this overlap with the marketing agenda?

To begin to answer this perhaps we can find some useful insights by looking at business executives who have already attained such senior level influence and for whom the customer and market (rather than the system within) provides their central reference point. Managers who use the market/customer reference point to guide their views on the best way to direct resources, what propositions are most valuable, as well as the source of new opportunities and potential risks. In short they are what we might term the market/customer champions.

GreenField set about an extensive research study is 2012 in an attempt to identify (if we could!) and understand these executives more deeply. Here’s what we found.

A New Role Model

Some of our Search Criteria

Senior managers who contribute to strategy and influence strategic business decisions in larger organisations and who…•

  • Have a strong external (market) focus (i.e.) believe that sustainable business success comes from continually winning buyer preferences and adapting to changing buyer needs
  • Make things happen and bring others along with them
  • Always question what is possible, open to explore new ideas and do not bind themselves to industry rules
  • See market change as an opportunity rather than a threat
  • More interested in how new income can be generated than in how legacy costs can be managed
  • And…are comfortable working with ambiguity and uncertainty

Our process began by considering what specific capabilities will be required to prosper in the new business reality.  It was apparent that these would not map existing functional areas, so we devised a set of search criteria from pilot research that was independent of function. Some of these criteria are shown in the box.

Several (widely-networked) business executives commented that many of the criteria sought was akin to a role model for the successful business manager … yet later acknowledged that they had great difficulty thinking of examples!

Fortunately we did find examples, and held face to face interviews with over 50 senior executives, but … without sounding too much like Attenborough lost in the depths of the Amazonian jungle, they are pretty rare. This is mainly because their special blend of skills and behaviours have not been recognised nor valued in the past.

Introducing the ‘Greenfield’ manager

We have named this type of manager the ‘Greenfield’ manager. This was because at their core they all exhibit a particularly valuable intrinsic quality – to approach issues and challenges ‘without prior constraints’. (Incidentally, that is also the reason why we choose that term for our company name.) Given the huge constraints to progress outlined in our first article, in our view this has now become an essential trait to meet the challenges of the new business reality.

We found Greenfield managers in a variety of senior roles, with different remits, titles and functional backgrounds. Interestingly, their characteristics are not a function of management speciality or training, but rather a function of mindset. Identifying true Greenfield managers cannot therefore be based upon existing descriptions and classifications such as function, seniority or remit.

How do ‘Greenfield’ managers differ from other managers?

Our findings demonstrate that the personal and behavioural characteristics of Greenfield managers are remarkably similar, but very different from both the ‘Professional’ manager and the ‘Entrepreneurial’ manager.

A Greenfield manager combines many of most valuable skills and behaviours of the Professional manager with some of the Entrepreneurial manager, and also adds some new additions to the mix.

The table below provides a few examples of how these managers relate to different organisational challenges, and who approach is particularly relevant in meeting the challenges of the new business reality.












Agenda/Orientation The system within The world outside Opportunistic
Ambiguity & Uncertainty Avoids ambiguity, needs & seeks certainty Accepts & comfortable with both, sees as normal Largely ignores
Management of Risk Risk averse, analyse away if possible Tolerant, success requires calculated risk Gambler, risk is adrenalin
Industry & Organisational Assumptions Observes Acknowledges but does not let them limit thinking Seeks to break
Response To Environmental Change Reactive Thinks first then proactive Acts first, awaits reaction
Line Of Sight Past Future Now
Target Setting Keep the bar low What is really possible? The moon, and beyond…
Decision Making Awaits internal consensus Seeks to build consensus Acts independently

 Let us now look a little deeper into their skills and behaviours.

Greenfield managers – skills & behaviours

In fact GreenField managers combine the best parts of both of these profiles, as well as introduce new elements of their own.  By clustering their many special traits we have identified five main clusters that characterise the GreenField manager.  These are

  • Perspective – An objective, outside-in, strategic, and challenging vantage point to finding and exploiting external opportunities and addressing challenges
  • Persuasiveness – Politically adroit with the ability to influence and convince at all levels, not from a position of authority but by a mark of their personality, skill and conviction
  • Pragmatism – The skills to get things done with and through other people, able to adapt when faced with new information or changed circumstances, implementers as well as strong conceptual thinkers
  • Persistence – Persevere in the pursuit of worthy organisational aims, even when the odds are stacked against them
  • Personal Outlook – ‘Inner-directed’ (rather than status- or reward-driven) and strongly motivated by the challenges around them; the confidence and courage to act independently, not waiting to be told or given permission, and often choose for themselves how to respond to change

Within each of these areas there is more detailed specification.

How many had a professional marketing background?

Given that they may be considered market/customer champions and that marketers (in theory) are seeking to align themselves with that accolade, it was surprising to find that only around 10% had risen through the tiers of marketing management or had formal marketing qualifications.

Being an effective customer champion it seems does not require a formal marketing background, nor does a formal marketing background mean that a marketer is an effective customer champion.

This has major implications for how Greenfield managers assess their own skills and knowledge gaps.

Greenfield managers – How they currently approach personal development

Greenfield managers tend to be self-motivated, self-reflecting, love challenge and a have a natural propensity to question and seek meaning. This comes through in the way they approach personal development.

They subscribe to the idea that stretching their mind and comfort zone is a healthy thing, and are continuously testing and refining their thinking against what they see and experience as well as the opinions of others.

Personal development is high on their agenda. This is not focused or dependent on the formalised personal development plans that are common in many organisations, but is usually self-defined.

The sweep of their radar is much wider than that of their peers. In a business context they are usually alert to anything that is relevant to the objectives at hand, or may have implications for the future prosperity of the organisation.

Greenfield managers know that there is more to be learned from failure than from success. They are adept at extracting guidance from their mistakes and the mistakes of others.

Although their learning and development process is loose rather than structured, their antennae are usually well-tuned and therefore able to identify gems from within the torrent of information that continuously streams past. Thought-provoking talks provide valuable new perspectives, and are therefore considered a good source of stimulus and food for further reflection.

There is plenty of evidence that Greenfield managers have well developed personal and business networks, comprising those who share their perspective and who are willing to challenge it.

Knowledge & Skill Gaps – Examples

Business life for Greenfield managers is also far from plain sailing. We gathered lots of feedback and comments on knowledge and skill gaps. A few examples are shown in the box, with direct citations from respondents. 

Some Interesting Gaps:-

Early Warning System

What would make a real difference is a process that could continually spot the best new opportunities before they become obvious … someone always gets there first.

Getting to Grips with the Concept of Customer Value

I believe that the whole idea of perceived customer value being at the heart of delivering profitability but I just don’t know how to get others on this wavelength. All we seem to focus on are revenues, costs and ROI. I can’t see this changing until we can offer a way of measuring the value of what we create and deliver.

Interpreting the Changing Market Landscape

We seem to go through a cycle of painful change just so that we can find ‘a period of stability’ again – nobody seems to realise that every time we ‘stabilise’ we just drop behind the market and it will be painful catching up again.

Understanding what we Don’t Know

There a tons of qualified people in this organisation so everything gets measured – at least everything that our competitors measure gets measured! The trouble is I think there are new and different forces driving us now that aren’t on our list of measures!

Opportunity Cost & Opportunities Lost

It worries me that we spend so much time and effort trying to estimate the risk associated with doing something, and don’t pay enough attention to how to maximise the returns or understand the risk of doing nothing.

Thinking Space

Thinking has been demoted. It normally takes the form of a quick assessment of what is currently happening and then be under pressure to take quick decisions and get into ‘action-mode’. A deeper consideration of the situation, options and consequences could deliver enormous return and be far more effective. In other words, we trade-in effectiveness for what we think is efficiency!

Available Support for Personal Development

Our study found little evidence of personal development support geared to the needs of Greenfield managers.

We were told that most existing management support assumes a ‘left-brain’ approach, and that there is a scarcity of tools at their disposal to develop the quality of solutions they would like.

Then there is the huge challenge of effective execution – navigating a course against an (often) opposing tide.

According to our interviews, the biggest constraint to progress for Greenfield managers was the lack of evidence about the changing external situation and its implications and consequences (threats and opportunities) for the business. Such evidence needs to be sufficiently compelling to steer and support strategic decision, and is also essential to achieve the cross-organisational internal buy-in that is so essential.

The Implications for You

Let go back to the original questions:

  • How can marketers gain greater influence into executive strategy making conversations as well as to key decision-making processes?
  • What skills, knowledge and behaviours are necessary to support this?

The answers will depend on where you (or your marketing team) are now, and where you want to be.

So what is your ambition?

Marketing is currently perceived by senior management in many organisations to be a function, a team of communication specialists. In this environment, the role of the marketing specialist is to oversee activities within their particular area of expertise, just as with other functional specialists such as L&D, cost accountancy, risk management or quality assurance.

Functional specialists are key assets in any organisation. But, as specialists, their engagement with senior executives and broader business issues is usually infrequent and tends to take the form of occasional advice when an issue arises that falls within their perceived area of expertise.

The bigger issue for marketers here is that, if positioned as a functional specialist, marketing is likely to be seen as a cost rather than a profit generator. This will make it so much harder for those seeking a seat at the strategy table.

So where do you (or your team) want to be?

  • Raise the reputation of your team as functional specialists, or do you seek to influence business strategy?
  • Provide occasional advice or engage regularly with senior executives and contribute to strategic direction?
  • Be responsible for the activities and budgets of a functional team or shoulder responsibility for contributing the top level financial and performance indicators?

How to leverage current Greenfield manager capabilities in your organisation?

If you have ambition to become a stronger market/customer champion, you should leverage the Greenfield-type capabilities. The good news is that these capabilities exist in most organisations, although it is important to note that many of them are likely to be currently hidden so identifying them can be tricky. Consider the following:

  • To what extent do you currently have these capabilities?
  • To what extent are they present within the marketing team?
  • Where do these capabilities exist in other parts of the organisation?
  • Where do these capabilities exist within the senior executive team?

Uncovering the people with these capabilities will be a great asset for you and the organisation, and an excellent group to pull together and involve in a special (strategic) project within your remit.


By John Greenhough & Paul Fifield. Article as featured for CAMBRIDGE MARKETING COLLEGE  / May 2014


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