After 20 years in consumer marketing with such companies as Frito-Lay, Polaroid, 1-800-Flowers and Nabisco (where he held the proud title of VP of Cookies!), Jerry Noonan helped open the Boston office of Spencer Stuart, one of the world's leading executive search firms. (It has 52 offices in 25 countries.)

In his work as executive search consultant, Jerry has helped many types of organizations fill senior-level marketing positions. In a paper he wrote, called “Marketing Leadership—Good vs. Great,” Jerry outlines the critical skills that marketers need to have to build equity within their organizations.

Recently, we talked about what he sees as the unique value that marketing brings to organizations and the ways that marketing is changing.

Young: I understand the economy is picking up and the outlook for marketing is brighter than it was a year ago or so. What are your clients looking for now?

Noonan: There's no simple answer to the question. Yes, I think overall business is picking up, although we as a firm have been growing for more than a year now. But increasingly complex and demanding marketplaces, competitive dynamics, change in channel, pressures, and dynamics, etc. are making marketing jobs more complicated.

As such, people who have had good careers often reach a plateau in their ability to keep up with the demands of the role. Also, information is more available, analytical rigor is more important, investments are more carefully scrutinized.

So, there's a certain amount of work we do to truly upgrade an organization's marketing capability by going outside. Typically an organization that has had good marketing capability, but has recognized the need to get even better, is going to look into organizations that are known to be really high-quality and high-caliber marketing organizations.

Executives sometimes start to feel a little restless in an “A” company and are interested in an opportunity, especially at a senior level, where they can really be part of building a significantly better marketing function and capability in a fundamentally good business. I think that's probably the predominant amount of what we're doing in the marketing space today.

With that said, there are some other types of search work that are pretty active. There are industries in which, historically, marketing has not been a strategic function. For example, within technology and financial services, where the product or the technology has been the driver, leadership at the very highest levels is starting to see the need to bring it together and make marketing a more strategic function. They are beginning to see marketing as the function that brings the market into the organization—not product, not engineering, not technology, and not the money runners. Marketing is now leading the process to identify the market and where the company will compete.

On occasion, I look across all the marketing work we do where there are literally companies who come to us and say “we need to start marketing.” They're looking for somebody to come in and help them start up a marketing function.

Now, these are on the extreme of sort of operational or technology-driven businesses. Usually, a very senior-level general management-oriented hire has come into the organization from a place where marketing has historically had an important role in their prior organizations, and they come to the new company and say, “We've really got to build this.” But they have to do a lot to align the rest of the leadership within their new company.

Young: Have you seen any marketers succeed at changing the culture of a company? Or does that have to come from the CEO?

Noonan: It comes when, at the very highest levels, someone has said, “We're going to be more marketplace-oriented, we're going to be more customer-centered, we're going to change the metrics we use.”

A good marketing partner will take that opening and create a well-understood story about the marketplace. I use the word “story” because it has to be factual, and logical, and structured, but engaging and interesting enough so that people can instinctively embrace it. And sometimes marketers get very complicated with graphs, and charts, and data, and the story is gone. All the facts may be right, but the story is gone.

And then, likewise, if it's overly simplified and trite, it's not going to be credible. Good marketers have that ability to find a way to tell the story where everyone can believe it. You want the marketers initially, and ultimately the organization, to have the market in their head, heart and gut. They understand the facts and the relevant, specific information they need to know. They believe it in their heart and their gut such that every decision they make is naturally filtered through the market and all the relevant variables.

Young: So those are the critical skills that marketers need to become leaders?

Noonan: A good marketer creates the story, the metrics, the change in the process and how decisions are made, all of which are fundamental to an organization being led by the market. That's what a good marketing head has to do once that opening is given. They have to build that process, not in a way where it's grabbing territory, [but] in a way where everyone comes along to win together.

Young: What work habits and skills are critical to deliver what sounds like a very tall order from the art and science sides of marketing? In other words, what skills do all successful marketers have?

Noonan: They're all interdependently important. One is that they're very good communicators, and they have the ability to take and integrate a lot of different elements—both quantitative and qualitative—into the story. And they are natural communicators and evangelists in that they take that story out and about, within their own marketing department, within their own chain—so that everybody sees it and gets it. Inherently, the head of a marketing function manages a lot of different [marketing] people who should be equally as adept at their individual business product, line, category, geographic market. It's important that marketers at the lower unit levels fit their piece into the bigger picture.

Two, the head of marketing, and likewise the marketers down in the organization, need to know how to fit the marketing story, the marketing plan, into the other functions. The best storytellers are the ones who tell the story in the context of the audience. So, you need to pivot your story to the needs and demands of the function or a group of functions that you're dealing with, and tell it in their context, in their point of view of the world.

The third part of what makes a successful marketer is somebody who is able to integrate all that data to make good decisions, decisions that move the business forward, and make those decisions with a level of abstraction that makes it a little intimidating. But a marketer needs self-confidence in business judgment and ability to take risks. I have had my share of big and little mistakes, but the alternative of somebody who only does things very incrementally, and therefore never fundamentally changes or improves the way the business operates, is likely to fall victim to competition and bold advances that other companies are willing to make.

Young: Does marketing typically play a role in what I call discontinuous change and growth through new product development? Or is marketing more often involved in sort of incremental change?

Noonan: Well, I think it should be both, and it certainly varies by industry. I think consumer package goods marketing has historically played a very significant role both across existing and new product operations, short- and long-term strategies, etc. In other industries, it's less so. For example, marketing in some parts of technology, and even financial services, is brought in at the end after some other function has made the big decisions about which way the business is going to move.

But I would offer that as companies become market-oriented, more and more marketing should be very central in that process. The initial conception of the idea is well grounded in the marketplace, and the decisions around product, pricing, distribution—all of the basics of what make a new business work—are well grounded in the marketplace. Only then will it come together as a fully integrated offering in a cohesive way. Other parts of a functional chain are not as likely as marketing to succeed at doing that well.

Young: How has the Internet changed marketing, and do you usually see the Web located in the marketing department, or is the responsibility decentralized?

Noonan: That is all over the place, defined by uneven applications of the Web and how companies view it. When the Internet initially emerged, it was seen as technology, because how you built it was so much a part of it. More and more it's falling toward the marketing part of the organization to define the brand, the positioning, the functionality, the usage.

But what complicates the matter is that the Web site tends to serve multiple purposes, and this varies all over the place. If it's a commerce channel, it includes corporate information and other things. In some cases, if it's more company and product information, it's more of a tool of corporate communications than it is a tool of commerce and business.

It is the corporate strategy that defines where it resides and who has responsibility for it, with marketing usually having at least a role on a cross-functional team that includes technology and other relevant functions.

The Internet has also affected the deployment of marketing. It's affected market research technique and capability. It's also affected the ability to do various forms of competitive analysis and the gathering of information to help make business decisions. So there's some other applications that have affected marketing in a way that go beyond just the company's site.

Young: Information about customers just five years ago was centered in marketing. Now it's in operations, it's in IT, and it's in product development. How has this changed marketing?

Noonan: Marketing has always used information in whatever state it was available, or whatever level of detail, to make decisions. Marketing was often the sole conduit of information, sharing reports, reviewing presentations and making their own judgment in group discussions. But now, engineers, finance people and sales people are, because the information is accessible through the Internet technology.

Companies that have done a good job with Internet and knowledge management have found good ways to deploy information. Secondly, now new project management tools are available to marketing when working in multifunctional teams, which provide a means to communicate and update everyone on a real-time basis. Meetings are still a piece of the process, but there is more going on in between the meetings.

Young: So how do you expect marketing will change over the next five years?

Noonan: Marketing will be more fully integrated throughout the organization. So I tell marketers that they need to go out and learn how the other functions operate. Learn how they think about the business, how they talk about the business—their language, their leverage points. The fundamental, high-order need is to be able to communicate in the eyes of your audience, not in your own framework. The second is a results orientation.

Marketing has always been a function accused of being not very financially oriented. It just spends the money and it works, but nobody knows for sure which marketing dollar works. I remember that expression used to drive me nuts.

Young: Fifty percent of advertising doesn't work; the problem is…

Noonan: …you just don't know which half. That's less and less tolerable in businesses that are wringing productivity out in increasingly narrow and competitive niches, whether it's product brand or channel of distribution.

You can't tolerate people who are not results-oriented and results-enabled. And a lot of the information technology we talked about has also enabled a much more precise tracking, and ways to measure and report results. If you look at some of the marketing modeling, statistics and tracking techniques of today versus even five or seven years ago, they're rapidly advanced.

And so if you think about the next five years, they're going to get even more so, and the more data there is and the more reliable the data is, the more results- orientation will be expected. People will be held to it, and ultimately we'll have to operate that way.

Young: I was just talking to a marketing professor at a prestigious graduate school of business. He suggested that the marketing department offer a course on ROI and marketing metrics, but the faculty shot down his idea. Yet when I talk to senior-level marketers, they tell me the number-one question they ask job applicants now is, How skilled are you analytically, and what do you know about marketing measurement and metrics?

Noonan: Yes. Companies I work with are investing the money to get more and more precise information, whether it's to guide decision making or to track results. Ultimately, the tracking of results and the diagnostics of those results are fueled to future decision making. So it's sort of an iterative process. And marketers have to be comfortable with that level of accountability.

It's accountability that operations folks around budgets and metrics have lived with for years, that sales people around revenue have lived with for years, and its now coming home—and rightly so—to the marketing function, where people have to be responsible for all of the levers of business success, but in a very clear and concrete way.

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image of Roy Young
Roy Young is coauthor of Marketing Champions: Practical Strategies for Improving Marketing's Power, Influence and Business Impact.