The Vital Role Marketers Play On Boards

Are marketing directors and CMOs questioning whether they deserve their place in a boardroom?  It seems so.   An article in Marketing Week quotes a survey by Deloitte, which suggests that “…just 5% of marketers had confidence in their ability to influence the overall direction of a business and garner support from peers…”. 

Interestingly, it’s not a view which is matched by their C-suite colleagues.  According to the report, “almost 50% of CEOs think CMOs are highly effective, as do CFOs, CIOs and CTOs.”

So, if these concerns are not backed up by the evidence of their peers, where has this anxiety come from? 

I’ve worked with the Institute of Directors, main board directors, as well as director trainers and no one ever voiced any doubt (to me at least) that marketers should be included at the top table. Far from it.  In an age where global markets are becoming more dynamic and complex, marketers’ ability to spot change and opportunity, look outside a company towards the changing landscape it inhabits and interpret all of the above underlines the role that they can play, perhaps most obviously in the creation and development of strategy.

So is the lack of confidence among marketers as a result of “imposter syndrome”?  Or does it point to a lack of understanding of the role that marketing directors play, and how they can best prepare for the unique set of challenges that boards present? 

The Purpose of a Board

Boards were established to ensure the interests of both shareholders and stakeholders were met by their respective organisations, and this role hasn’t changed much in the last 150-odd years.  They

  • provide “entrepreneurial” leadership to their organisations while ensuring risks are understood and managed within a framework of prudent and effective controls
  • set out an organisation’s values and ensure that these underpin obligations to shareholders and other stakeholders
  • approve the company’s strategic direction while ensuring that the necessary resources are in place to meet the stated objectives

Who Sits on Boards?

Members of boards have tended to be finance professionals, but they are typically supported by other disciplines from across the company and beyond (the non-executive directors).  A board should essentially be “a cabinet of all the talents”. 

Exactly who those other representatives should be is difficult to answer.  No one can definitively state the “ideal mix” of skills and experience on a typical board as every company is different.  Common sense dictates instead that company boards should reflect an organisation’s uniqueness, needs and the context in which they operate.  

The Role of Marketers on Boards

So what role do marketing directors play on boards?  Notably they help to:

  • position the company to its greatest advantage
  • contribute to its overall vision and strategy ie. see the bigger picture
  • promote its goods and services
  • generate more revenue

Added to which, marketers are typically able to gather data from a range of sources and interpret it capably, meaning CMOs can help the board make sense of complex information to support decision-making. 

The strongest argument I think for including a senior marketer on a board is this:  if an organisation is seeking to create value for its owners and employees, it can only do this by creating value for external parties (usually customers).  This understanding of the importance of creating value is core to any marketing philosophy and is central to what most would recognise as a strong strategic approach for any organisation. 

Preparing for a Director’s Role

If imposter syndrome is at the heart of this CMO anxiety, then it may well be caused in part by the lack of information and support that exists for new directors.  Recent appointees can be surprised by the complexity of the job to be done.  They may also feel vague about how/where they can contribute. This is not uncommon, but it may lead to a lack of confidence in speaking up in front of peers for fear of ‘saying the wrong thing’, which could have serious consequences for the quality of boardroom discussions and decision-making. Unfortunately for them, there is no ‘provisional licence’ for a new director;  financial and binding legal responsibilities apply from Day 1 of the appointment so it’s important for candidates to get up to speed with their new role as quickly as possible.  But that is no mean feat, given their responsibilities now include both oversight of their key operational responsibilities as well as a general overview of a company’s operational activities and corporate governance, including an understanding of its exposure to risk and of its strategic direction. 

For those about to take up a board appointment, or those who have just done so, here are some pointers:

  • Inductions

All new members of a board should ask the Chair about provisions for mentoring and CPD/training, and request an induction – a vital first step enabling them to get a proper overview of the company, connect with senior members of staff, and understand key relationships.

Training for all directors is important but is often overlooked, perhaps because there is a fear it shows weakness or frailty.  But no board should underestimate the value of CPD, ensuring that the company is fully across changes in the wider political, social, legal and sectoral business landscape.  

  • Understand how the Board Communicates

Every board has a ‘language' that new directors need to tune into.  Again, you are not alone if - as happens - you suggest something that may be disregarded, only for that very point to be agreed upon when someone else says it slightly differently!  It happens to the best of us, and working out how best to get your point across takes time.

This is not to say everyone around the table should think and act alike, nor should everyone necessarily always agree.  All directors must be able to apply clear and independent thought to the challenges they face, avoiding where possible the perils and limitations inherent in ‘group think’ that may mean decisions are insufficiently thought through.  As such, new directors should be part of a drive to encourage diversity within their board make-up in areas such as gender, age or background.  This helps avoid the board becoming a very homogenous group, which may happen where recruitment is primarily via the company management.

  • Align with other Key Directors

It is still the case, however, that marketers can believe themselves to be viewed as ‘vague’ and ‘less grounded’ in practicalities when compared to those with the stronger affinity for the practical and precise.  The relationship between a CMO and their CFO can be very important in this regard., as can the relationship with the CIO given the increasing role of technology in the generation of insights.


For anyone still feeling slightly anxious, think about listening more than talking (at least to begin with) and focusing on the assured smart wins rather than making huge (unplanned) changes – unless of course the company is experiencing exceptional circumstances such as a turnaround or insolvency.

You will almost certainly bring a fresh perspective but don’t forget the value of tapping into existing know-how to create trust and positive collateral across the people and assets within your organisation.

Good luck!

Written by: Gerry Vincent, FCIM. SW Senior Marketer Ambassador