The marketer who made it – what it takes to get a seat at the big table

Which skills can help marketers make it to senior management? Marketing hears it firsthand from Ben Foote, who’s made a career of making the journey.

This article originally appeared in The Nurture IssueMarketing‘s current print issue.

Ben Foote has used his marketing chops to climb the ranks more than once. At Optus, he began as a product marketing manager before taking the reins as strategy and insights general manager. Following that, he spent six years at Career One, where he began as director of marketing and communications before a promotion to chief operating officer and finally a two-year tenure as CEO. 

Today, he’s CEO at the Australian Institute of Management (AIM) and Group CEO of its parent company Scentia. Today, he offers advice for business leaders on how marketing skills and a solid understanding of customers can be used for company growth on an organisational level and career success on a personal level.

A marketing professional who’s made it to upper management time and again and now leads a company that develops marketing courses for future success? He just may be the perfect person to hear from in a mag issue all about careers and skills. 

Ben Ice: What is it about marketing? Which skills have been so relevant to overall management that they’ve taken you to the top?

Ben Foote, CEO AIM, Group CEO Scentia: Marketing – as I think of it – allows an immersion, of getting a deep understanding of the customer. And ultimately, when you’ve got a very, very good understanding of the customer, you’re in a brilliant position to influence a business strategy and drive growth.

Has pushing the marketing agenda been a battle for you at times, or has the growth been quite organic?

I’d like to say it’s been organic, but I certainly see people taking a different approach to marketing that I don’t think is as effective in terms of moving up into a more senior role. A number of people look at marketing much more as a communications role rather than a strategic role. 

Aligning product messaging around the customer and also being able to build strategies to make a significant impact on the customer journey can radically change the business in which you operate. The marketer who’s taking that approach is sitting right in the middle of that change and growth.

What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in marketing throughout your journey?

Well, it has become a very, very technical role. From my earlier career when there were certainly elements of market research – which was quant and qual – there was still a lot of gut instinct. Today it requires a highly technical individual to advance through a marketing department. It’s such a technical job that it’s even attracting quite a different individual into the sphere.

Has anything – perhaps creativity – been lost as a result of a reliance on data and tech?

I don’t think so. It’s driving a couple of really interesting things. Firstly, it’s an amazing opportunity for young marketers to very quickly advance their careers. They are digital natives and in many cases are quickly understanding marketing platforms and can move up and run marketing departments quite quickly. They are overtaking the generations above them who are just not as comfortable or confident within the digital marketing space. That’s a great thing because it gives people the opportunity to advance their careers. 

The second piece around whether anything’s lost in marketing? I don’t think so, but I do think it’s a little bit more of a challenge for people in marketing to pull themselves back from the detail around marketing automation, big data, cost-per-lead and cost-per-acquisition.

Pulling themselves back and remembering that there’s a real person buying a product or service? Pausing to think and understand that person, their drivers and then to be better set to go and make an impact? It’s harder to get that perspective, but ultimately it’s just a more complex world.

What’s your training approach for marketing skills? How is it changing?

The Australian Institute of Management is a very, very large provider in short courses and one-, two- and three-day training provider courses in future skills across Australia. It goes right up to accredited education. The hallmark is our MBA program.

One of our popular programs is digital marketing for non-marketers. It’s an interesting area of marketing as it becomes more and more important as a business function. Marketing has the potential to take over some of the other functions within a structure – like customer service and potentially the technology function as well – as the business aligns to serving the customer better than anybody else in the market. 

That ultimately leads to the marketing function becoming more and more prevalent within organisations. What you’re seeing is more and more of the management layer within businesses needing to up-skill in understanding marketing fundamentals and also knowing what is happening within digital marketing. What are the possibilities of digital marketing and how can [business leaders] harness them to better perform their role? 

They may be looking for candidates if they’re in the HR function, or looking at new ways to interact with customers in a call centre. A lot of this advancement is really happening within marketing. A lot of people are saying, ‘I need these skills to better perform in my current role, I need this cross-functional knowledge.’ So, a lot of people outside of marketing are starting to take marketing courses.

We see that in the significant demand for our digital marketing for non-marketing program. We also see it in our mini MBA programs – which aren’t full MBAs – they’re just five-day programs, but one day is completely focused on the customer, understanding the customer and key marketing principles. These principles are at the centre of not only marketing but also can be used cross-functionally in other management roles to better perform. As businesses get more and more complex, people need to train cross-functionally, and marketing is one of the key pillars management need to train in to be more effective.

Related: Quantum leap – why this theoretical physicist now works in martech »

How can people quickly build that knowledge and work it into their positions?

There are a few areas. Customer journey mapping is a really interesting thing for management to do to understand the customer journey, how it can be impacted and how customers’ expectations can be achieved within a journey is a very valuable tool. It really sits in marketing, but is very cross-functional. 

Next is getting an understanding of the levels of targeting now available to a marketing team. It’s critical so that people can think more deeply about the strategy of the business and how to reach a set of consumers, to target a specific person or market.

This is obviously incredibly important if you’re a sales leader, to understand how sophisticated and personalised marketing targeting and messaging can become. Ultimately you want to add to that strategy to make your team perform better. And you want to challenge that strategy, as well, to ensure that your sales team is in a very strong position. 

Then you can look at finance. Finance needs to understand where significant money is being spent on things like social media and search engines, for example, and be able to challenge marketers on how that money is being spent and what the outcomes are – what the key performance measures are. They need to be able to talk about CPMs, CPAs and CPLs with confidence, and it’s not easy.

It’s a much more complex conversation than it used to be when people were talking about what the gut feel of a campaign was. It’s a much, much deeper conversation, but it’s extremely important for the growth of the business.

Everyone’s working on their marketing skills. Should marketers be worried?

No, marketing is growing in importance. It’s certainly growing not only in importance, but in how central it is to business. Ultimately you need to be connected with the customer and that connection is stronger within marketing if the function is being run well. Marketing, therefore, has the most ability to have impact. 

I haven’t seen statistics around this, though my story’s in line with it and executive recruiters I talk to say the CEOs they’re finding jobs for now are mainly from marketing and product backgrounds. It wasn’t long ago that those CEOs were coming out of finance in most cases. But finance is very much seen as – with all due respect – an important administration task now within a business, because it’s less connected to the customer.

You extrapolate that trend and you see businesses where marketing is much more front and centre. You only have to look at your Steve Jobses of this world, who was the customer champion, who had the product and the customer aligned in his vision to understand how powerful that can be.

What would your advice be to marketers who want to build on their management skills and work their way to the top spot like you have?

Business used to be very linear. You used to be able to manage up and down, and now with technology and the speed of communication, businesses have become totally complex. Communication goes from everywhere to everywhere within an organisation. There’s no structure at all to communication channels.

So in order to be successful in business, whether you’re a marketer – or any position – you need to have excellent communication skills. To have excellent communication skills you have to understand yourself very well. You have to understand how you come across and how to work with people who are different than you to get their support and to drive to a great outcome with them. 

Excellent communication skills, which you can certainly learn and improve all of the time, is number one in terms of moving up in a business. That’s a given. Then the other skills are probably easier to learn because they’re more technical. Certainly, communications combined with numbers is important in terms of being able to articulate a business case. So to put numbers around your ideas and plans is critical. I would say that is a second to communication.

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Ben Ice
BY Ben Ice ON 4 September 2019
Ben Ice was MarketingMag editor from August 2017 - February 2020