The growth imperative: Perspectives from UK marketing leaders

| Interview

As business leaders confront extreme uncertainties—including supply chain shocks, the ongoing impacts of the war in Ukraine, and an unpredictable economy buffeted by inflation—driving growth is becoming ever-more challenging.

While the Bank of England’s most recent forecasts no longer project a recession in 2023, the outlook for the United Kingdom remains subdued by historical standards. Inflation remained as high as 10.1 percent1Global Economics Intelligence executive summary, April 2023,” McKinsey, May 19, 2023. in March, wage and price increases and monetary-policy changes continue to work their way through the system, and persistent Brexit effects are complicating supply chains across industries and adding to household food bills.2 Our latest Consumer Pulse Survey shows that rising prices are the leading concern for 66 percent of UK consumers—a result that is eight percentage points higher than the average of their top five European counterparts (France, Germany, Italy, and Spain). UK consumers also appear to be worried about the long-lasting effects of the current economic crisis, with 25 percent expressing pessimism about the likelihood of a swift recovery.

While these circumstances make planning ahead a significant challenge for businesses, successful leaders are adapting to the new reality. When leaders explicitly choose to grow and activate specific growth pathways, they are nearly twice as likely to achieve above-peer growth (see sidebar “Avenues to growth”). Consistent outperformance is possible: one in ten companies in the S&P 500 has delivered growth rates above GDP growth for more than 30 years running.

We spoke with some leading UK-focused marketing and commercial leaders to better understand how they are navigating today’s challenging environment while rigorously prioritizing growth. Below is an edited transcript from our conversations with Lex Bradshaw-Zanger of L’Oréal,3 Jessica Myers of The Very Group, Yilmaz Erceyes of Premier Foods, Fiona Spooner of the Financial Times, and Christian Thrane of British Telecommunications (BT). They are all alumni of the Marketing Academy EMEA Fellowship Program—a sought-after leadership and capability-building program aimed at coaching growth-oriented marketing leaders to become CEOs (see sidebar “About the Marketing Academy Fellowship”).

“There has been a phenomenal amount of change in the last two years,” says Myers, “but this is not the only time we’ve encountered challenging conditions. The hallmarks of great leadership haven’t changed. Your job as a leader is to look into the future.”

A connected culture fuels a long-term growth mindset

Growth flows when leaders establish clear targets and a growth mindset within an organizational culture that is emotionally connected.

Jessica Myers, chief marketing officer, The Very Group: Don’t underestimate the power of a growth mindset. If people come in with growth mindsets, we can teach them any technical skill. But if they have closed mindsets, it can be extremely limiting. There is also definitely something to be said for sitting side by side with your colleagues, spending time in the office, in your distribution centers, and in customer contact centers to really understand how your colleagues are feeling and what kinds of conversations they are having. The best leaders stay in touch with the heart and soul of the business in challenging times, which informs how they make future decisions.

Yilmaz Erceyes, chief marketing officer, Premier Foods: We try to find ways to get people speaking up when they believe in something, because it’s sometimes so easy not to speak up if people fear it will disturb social cohesion. We debate ideas and find the best possible outcome while making sure no one shies away from sharing a point of view. It’s important to drive that intellectual friction while keeping social friction low, so everyone can feel psychologically safe.

Uniting in pursuit of growth requires maintaining steady focus on long-term goals even while navigating short-term obstacles.

Fiona Spooner, managing director for consumer revenue, Financial Times: Our North Star metric is growing our global paying audience. It’s something that the whole company can understand and buy into. And it’s very much felt from the top all through the company. It’s not just one team’s role. Having that clear goal that everyone can contribute toward is really important for moving the whole company in the right direction.

Jessica Myers, The Very Group: We can talk about our ambition to build a pipeline of future customer growth and to establish clear objectives for long-term brand building. That being said, if your numbers are down week after week—especially when you work in a highly commercial trading environment—then the organization quickly flips to being focused on the short term. The key is focusing on both.

Christian Thrane, managing director of marketing for consumer division, British Telecommunications (BT): What you are able to prioritize and do long term relies on your ability to balance your resources and investments so that you can continue to deliver on your short-term numbers. It is critical for investor support and buy-in.

Activating growth pathways requires deep understanding of consumers

Growth initiatives should be built on foundations of learning and insight. Understanding customers is an imperative first step.

Jessica Myers, The Very Group: Long gone are the days when marketing teams and business teams could set an 18-month plan and follow it in a linear fashion. So we are listening to what customers are saying, we are poring over consumer data, trend data, and shopper data, and we’re making sure we understand exactly how customers are responding to marketing strategies and where we need to make adjustments. For example, one initiative we have under way is to offer digital, multicategory retail that integrates flexible ways to pay. We saw that families value being able to shop in one place for all their needs, are really savvy when it comes to understanding budgeting, and really value having flexible ways to pay—whether it is pay now, pay later, or pay within 12 months. So we’re offering that convenience and flexibility.

Fiona Spooner, Financial Times: Our customers’ expectations are higher than ever. For us, it’s important to make sure that we’re providing clarity on things like the price and proposition. But consumers are also now purchasing through a lens of ethics and principles, and the environment and society, and they are really clear about expecting a higher standard of behavior from businesses and the people who run them. Customers are voting with their feet far more often when companies lack social purpose or aren’t clear about how they work with their partners, source their products, and treat their staff. We went through a huge transformation when we first introduced a paywall. And it required us to balance sustaining a profitable newspaper with growing a digital subscriber model. It’s very much a continuous conversation.

Efforts to strengthen a company’s core, expand into new categories or geographies, and ignite breakout businesses can work together, creating opportunities and diversifying risks.

Yilmaz Erceyes, Premier Foods: Our core UK business is fundamental to our group strategy because more than 90 percent of our revenue comes from it. Having said that, there are other growth pillars in our group strategy. We are always looking for new categories to introduce our brands into, as long as they meet certain criteria. One recent example: as a business, we were well positioned in lunch, dinner, and in-between snacking, but not breakfast, so that was one strategic focus area for us to expand into. We also have an international business that’s growing at a double-digit rate and is becoming an important growth driver for us. So those additional areas such as new categories, international, and M&A play along with the UK core. But delivering healthy CAGR in the UK core business over our five-year horizon is still critical for our group performance.

Christian Thrane, BT: As a telecommunications business, we have the privilege that there’s an almost unending demand for connectivity. Augmented reality, virtual reality, autonomous vehicles, and many other things will rely on very high-quality connectivity. So investing in our core portfolio—developing our customer relationships, the payment relationships we have with them, the assets we have in our network, and our stores and contact centers—and then being able to deliver great experiences around our core are key to our growth ambitions. The customer and billing relationships that we have with a significant share of households across the United Kingdom in particular give us the potential to start expanding beyond our core by leveraging the large amount of data we have and the frequency of the interactions we have with our customers.

Lex Bradshaw-Zanger, chief marketing and digital officer for the South Asia Pacific, Middle East, and North Africa (SAPMENA) zone, L’Oréal: The breadth and depth of our portfolio is critical. We have international brands as well as local brands in different markets, across price points, across categories, and across distribution channels. And that makes us versatile. If you think about the categories of beauty, skin care, face care, hair care, makeup, and fragrance, we’re in all of them, with distribution all the way from grocery to luxury. That creates a great business model because your risk is very distributed in the product base. Not all organizations are portfolio companies, but a lot of the players in beauty are organized in that way.

Superb execution is a matter of speed and agility

Executing with excellence requires constant, agile adaptation—allowing disruptions to be transformed into opportunities.

Yilmaz Erceyes, Premier Foods: During the pandemic, when people couldn’t go out to eat, and some demographics were probably cooking at home for the first time in their adult lives, we created a bespoke campaign in which we suggested that the best restaurant in town could be your kitchen. More recently, a lot of consumers told us that as their household budgets get squeezed, they worry they’ll need to compromise on the taste and nutritional value of meals they make at home. So we’ve repurposed that pandemic-era campaign to give it a stronger value message. This is an example of how you can keep investing in your brand and building equity while also taking into account the current context.

Fiona Spooner, Financial Times: We’re continually evolving our teams and roles. We don’t set things in place and then leave them there. We continually review how we can improve and make sure that we’re building the right teams and capabilities now for long-term growth.

New technology creates new possibilities. It cannot be ignored.

Christian Thrane, BT: I think it’s hard to live in the marketing world and not be tech savvy. You need to understand which data sits where and how to use it. Today, everybody’s talking about generative AI. How do you use it? When do you use it? How do you create secure ways to learn from it? How do you get your foundations right and structure your data so that you can truly leverage AI? One thing you can’t do is just sit on it and think, “It’s not for me.”

Jessica Myers, The Very Group: Capability-wise, the center of all businesses—especially digital businesses and digital-marketing teams like ours—is understanding tech and data. Companies that don’t unlock their first-party data will very quickly find themselves out of the game. Not only because they’ll be inefficiently marketing to their customers but also because customers are starting to expect highly personalized, targeted experiences. If your company hasn’t worked out how to harness data and put it in colleagues’ hands, it will lag behind experienced companies that are doing this really well.

Companies that don’t unlock their first-party data will very quickly find themselves out of the game.

Jessica Myers

Lex Bradshaw-Zanger, L’Oréal: We’re deploying more people in areas like data engineering, data visualization, and data management. But I think we’re reaching a tipping point there, and that tipping point is AI. If AI will be able to handle all the big data and do all the churning on its own in the future, maybe the skill set that we need to be prepping for is how to manage AI, understand how it works, and integrate it into the business. There’s probably a disruption coming, whether it’s two years away or five years away. Marketing has always been a mix of art and science. There is still a lot of manual work involved in marketing, and I’m hopeful that AI will take care of some of that and enable us to refocus more on value-driving activities and strategic objectives. But that won’t be tomorrow.

Growth in challenging times requires a bold mindset, robust capabilities, a keenness to explore growth avenues beyond a business’s core, and excellence in execution every day. Leaders who maintain a laser focus on growth are more likely to outperform their peers and emerge from this challenging period stronger than before.

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