imberly Whitler, Assistant Professor at Darden School of Business, on the lack of influence marketers have in strategic decision-making. Her research is centred on helping boards understand how to leverage marketing tools. Prior to earning her Ph.D. Whitler worked in general marketing roles for two decades, including at P&G.
once interviewed a board member, who has served on 15 different company boards, and asked him what contribution marketers could have on a company board. His response was: "None." Marketing is not a strategic function, he explained. As an academic, we tend to answer questions like that with "it depends" because, even if the answer is typically "no," there is almost always a condition when it would be valuable. Surprised by his unequivocal answer, I asked follow-up questions designed to better understand his thinking. The "aha" moment came when I asked him to name a function he thought was strategic, and his response was "operations." I then asked him in which function he had worked. "Operations," he said.
Most board members tend to come from throughput functions, focused on driving internal efficiencies. In contrast, marketing and sales are trained in driving demand. This unique and complementary training can help boards think about how to drive top-line performance.
This board member's belief that marketers should not be included on the board appears to be widely accepted in practice. In a study* of more than 64,000 biographies of U.S. board members conducted with Ryan Krause (TCU) and Don Lehmann (Colombia University), published in the Journal of Marketing ("How and When Board Members with Marketing Experience Facilitate Firm Growth"), only 2.6% of the board members had executive-level marketing experience. We analyzed S&P 1,500 firms over a six-year time period (2007 to 2012). And, in research conducted by the National Association of Corporate directors, they found that just 4% of board members in the U.S. believe that marketing experience is important for a board member. What this suggests is that board beliefs and behavior are aligned - they neither see the value in having marketing expertise on boards nor do they include marketers on boards.
We found this interesting because some of the biggest challenges that those at the top are grappling with - driving growth, managing the firm's reputation, developing digital strategies - all theoretically should benefit from marketing know-how.
This led us to a fundamental question: What firm-level impact might marketing experience uniquely affect, above and beyond the other functions (e.g. operations, finance, accounting, etc.) that typically populate boards? Most of the individuals who sit on boards tend to come from throughput functions focused on driving internal efficiencies. In contrast, marketing and sales are trained in driving demand. This unique and complementary training can help boards think about how to drive top-line performance.
Thus, in our research, we investigated whether, and under what conditions, marketing expertise on boards could help drive firm revenue growth. We found that boards with marketing experts are able to generate better growth results than boards without. In the academic models, boards with marketers generated 7.87 additional percentage points in revenue growth.
As a simple example, firms in our database saw an average revenue decline of 6% the year after the financial collapse. Boards without marketers experienced an average revenue decline of 8% while boards with marketers grew by 2%.
Going back to the operations expert who had served on 15 boards, I was surprised by his claim that there aren't any marketers with strategic training that could enable them to contribute at the board level. Most people would suggest that the following people are effective strategists that understand how to drive revenue growth: A.G. Lafley, former CEO and chairman of Procter & Gamble; Meg Whitman, former CEO and president of Hewitt Packard; Scott Cook, co-founder of Intuit and board director of eBay and P&G; Steve Ballmer, former CEO of Microsoft; and Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever. What all of these individuals have in common is that they worked in brand management - or general management marketing - roles. They were trained to drive profitable growth by understanding the consumer and competitive environment, and converting this knowledge into superior products and services to meet consumer need. They are essentially growth engineers.
In a recent Harvard Business Review article ("The Trouble with CMOs"), I share some insight on the variance of the Chief Marketing Officer role. There are some CMOs that drive firm strategy and others that do not. I’ve found that people tend to believe marketing is the same everywhere and, therefore, whatever marketers did at their company is what all marketers do. This could not be further from the truth.
Although not all marketers are strategists, all are trained to help support revenue growth - whether they work in upstream strategy roles, downstream commercialization roles or both as general management marketers. Our research indicates that marketing expertise on boards can help steward the firm to achieve better growth results. The fact that only 2.6% of board members have marketing expertise suggests that there is an opportunity for boards to leverage marketing insight to achieve better growth results.
advantages that boards
with marketers can have
In 2016, 52% of fast-moving consumer goods companies missed their revenue growth target while 2% missed their profit target, according to Frederick Fernandez and Associates. Company leaders are struggling to figure out how to generate growth. One possible answer is for firms to reconsider the functional knowledge and expertise that exists at the top - the board of directors. Without a growth engineer (i.e., marketing expert), who will advise the board and top management team on demand generation? And who will be able to govern the CMO and marketing function?
The goal of a company should be to create value, which requires a deep understanding of the people who will use the product or service. With marketing and sales as the primary, output-oriented functions, their training is to have an outside-in view of the world. What are the consumer's needs? How do we stack up versus the competition? The throughput functions have an inward orientation. How can we manufacture our product cheaper?
How can we increase labor productivity? Both are critically important. Imagine a top management team without a CFO. Or one without a CMO. While all boards have CFOs, most do not have CMOs. This absence can lead to an inwardly-focused board. By adding a marketing expert, the firm can broaden the lens through which they think about the business by bringing the customer into the boardroom.
A marketing-experienced board member shared a story of their first meeting serving on the board of a large energy/utility company. Although an experienced board member, the board member was the first marketer to serve on this particular company's board. During the first meeting, the board member was surprised to find that the board did not mention "consumer" or "customer" once. Not one topic - or one minute - was spent thinking about the people that the firm served. Over time, the board member was able to bring an "outside-in" perspective to the board by asking questions, amending the board agenda, and providing specific insight.
Today, that firm has added a C-level role that is charged with understanding and creating value for customers and it is a priority strategy at the board level. As this story illustrates, boards that include marketers add an expertise that can help the firm navigate the external marketplace (i.e., consumers/competitors) more effectively.
When we talk about diversity, we tend to focus on gender, race, etc. We rarely talk about skill, knowledge or competency-based diversity. Functional diversity exists at the top of the firm, with each functional head typically serving on the "top management team". This leads to a balance of perspectives and functional knowledge. But at the board level, it's possible to find boards dominated by one or two functions. Would you want a board with all marketers? No. But do you want a board without any marketers - or growth engineers? As boards focus on adding more diversity, we believe that this research should generate more conversations around the type of functional expertise that the board needs to have to facilitate firm performance and govern the top management team.