3 Priorities for Today’s Marketing Leaders
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Marketing Nov 7, 2023

3 Priorities for Today’s Marketing Leaders

A roundtable of experts weighs in on trends and challenges in a time of radical industry shifts.

business leader juggling pins

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on insights from

Jim Stengel

Jeff Jacobs

Pree Rao

Martha Williams

Summary Marketing leaders are adjusting to the economic, technological, and social changes of the last four years. This roundtable conversation among four experts in the field examines the trends, challenges, and opportunities of the current moment. Specifically, the experts discuss how leaders might strategically harness the influx of data available to their teams, build more inclusive organizations, and calibrate their organizational culture to a new workforce.

The pandemic ushered in seismic economic, technological, and social changes in the ways business is conducted—and marketing leaders are at the forefront of a lot of these changes.

The 2023 Kellogg Marketing Leadership Summit, co-hosted by Kellogg, McKinsey & Company, and Egon Zehnder, brought marketing leaders together in conversations focused on how they can build resilience for companies, teams, and themselves in the face of radical industry shifts.

What do today’s marketing leaders face—and what does that say about industry more broadly?

Kellogg Insight spoke with some of the hosts afterwards to reflect more generally on the trends, challenges, and opportunities of the current moment. Three main topics emerged.

Marketing leaders continue to wrestle with the influx of data that is available to their teams—and changing skillsets required to harness it strategically both now and in the future.

One problem that marketing leaders continue to face is how to make use of the sheer amount of data that they have access to while still tackling everything else on their plates.

“There’s so much data at marketers’ fingertips nowadays and there can be a tension between the need to react to this in the present and maintain the frame of your long-term plan,” says Martha Williams, a consultant at Egon Zehnder. “The question for leaders becomes: How do you set priorities and give strategic clarity, but also respond to insights from your consumer data and filter these to target tacitical actions that make sense in the short term?”

Jeff Jacobs, a partner at McKinsey & Company, agrees. “A lot of companies are drowning in data, which has been around for a while. The best marketing leaders are staying focused on figuring out where there is the most value, and what is the job to be done. They ask, “who is the core customer? What do I need to know about them, what data do I actually need, and what tools can I use?””

And while artificial intelligence tools like ChatGPT can help leaders “get to answers faster and cheaper,” he says, “it is still about applying the right questions and prompts versus just experimenting with the latest shiny object.”

Jacobs also points out that the growing emphasis on data is shifting the composition of the marketing workforce and thus posing new leadership challenges. “The skillsets of brand managers are changing,” he says. “It also means that on marketing teams you now have data scientists, data engineers, UI, UX people. How you manage that as the chief is very different than it used to be—not only the salaries but the motivations and the career paths for marketers look very different.”

But one thing isn’t changing, says Jim Stengel, a senior marketing fellow at Kellogg (and former global marketing officer at Procter & Gamble): CMOs have always been people leaders. “Now they’re strategists and business operators, too, but the ones that rise to the top are good with people.”

Building more-inclusive organizations continues to be a priority for marketing leaders—but with so many other priorities, will the emphasis on DEI continue?

Since the 2020 murder of George Floyd, “there’s been a lot of meaningful progress in thinking about diversity differently in organizations,” says Pree Rao of Egon Zenhder. Where companies had previously maintained a very narrow focus on diversity—most often defined on gender lines—there is increasing recognition for the need to create more-inclusive company cultures that would improve both the recruitment and retention of a broader array of traditionally underrepresented minorities.

This change in thinking has seen some results—and success begets success.

“New leaders want to join organizations where people stretch their thinking and push them in different directions from their own experience and background and skillset,” Williams says.

“Once you get past a certain phase, there becomes almost a virtuous cycle, because when you have one underrepresented minority on your team, it can be difficult for there to be the psychological safety for them to bring a diverse perspecitve? But when you have a larger percentage of your team coming from traditionally underrepresented groups, that creates a very, very different dynamic,” says Rao.

“New leaders want to join organizations where people stretch their thinking and push them in different directions from their own experience and background and skillset.”

Martha Williams

Stengel agrees. “There are many, many companies that are sincere about this, that get it, and are making progress,” he says.

But sustaining that progress—and having it spread to less-committed companies, is not guaranteed. With so many competing priorities and market tensions, DEI initiatives could be at risk of falling to the wayside, unless organizations and their leaders stay focused on the value diversity and inclusivity adds to organizations.

“To sustain change, the pressure’s going to have to continue to come from both leaders and newer team members, but ultimately the tone of inclusivity has to be set at a leadership level,” Williams says.

Marketing talent values flexibility more than ever before—so marketing leaders are having to decide whether and how to accommodate this while still maintaining a healthy company culture.

It’s hard to overstate how quickly flexibility, including the ability to work remotely, has become a “new expectation” among marketing employees, particularly those early in their careers, says Stengel. “I hosted a panel of young people at an event recently and asked: How many of you would leave your company if you had to be in the office five days a week? Nearly all of them said they would leave.”

The marketing leaders at the conference shared the same concerns. “I spoke with two senior marketers who both shared that the first question they’re being asked by potential new joiners is, ‘what’s your flexibility policy?’” says Williams. “How often people have to go into the office is becoming a key decider for talent considering companies.”

This puts leaders in a bind, because building a strong and unique company culture is also important, and this can be tough to do remotely. Those who stand to benefit most tend to be the same younger employees who are most committed to flexibility.

“Initially, you may be more efficient if you can work from home all the time,” says Rao. “But that is the equivalent of—in marketing terms—a short-term-performance marketing focus. You also need to take a longer-term brand-building-like view that accounts for how people learn from each other and what’s better for the collective versus just the individual. The world is moving to a place where marketing teams need flexibility and structure the same way they need brand and performance.”

The problem is further complicated by the decisions that some companies have made to reduce their real estate footprint. “There are companies that have downsized their spaces and now don’t have enough desks for the couple of days that people come in, so people are getting frustrated because they have nowhere to sit and no defined place do their work,” says Williams.

Stengel says that there is much work to be done.

“I was talking to Upwork’s CMO recently and she said they have to shift their conversation from culture being a where to culture being a how. We were all raised on ‘Apple has a great building’ and ‘Google has free snacks’ and ‘P&G has laundry machines and babysitting.’ That’s not the reality anymore. There is a role for where, but where now may be meeting once a week in a really cool place and doing collaboration there,” says Stengel. “Leaders are going to have to think about the how of culture, including apprenticeship and mentorship and observation. That means accepting that we don’t all have to be in the same four walls to do that.”

Featured Faculty

Senior Fellow and Adjunct Professor of Marketing

About the Writer

Fred Schmalz is the Business and Art Editor of Kellogg Insight.

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