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21st Century Marketing Leadership

How to be a more effective leader in a world of constant change

Since closing my last company & becoming a solo operator one of the best things I’ve noticed is that once your days are no longer filled with endless meetings you have a lot more time to do interesting things with interesting people.

One of which this morning was to join a fascinating and productive session from The Marketing Society on 21st Century Marketing Leadership. Rather than the usual one-way presentation it was a coffeehouse style chat involving three three-minute conversation starters, and then two breakout sessions with different interesting folks from across the world.

The topic was a wide one, but one we’re all grappling with in different ways – how to be a more effective leader in a world of constant change; where we’re all asked to do more with less, whilst creating an endlessly productive and motivating environment for increasingly challenging bosses and employees!

It started with Julia Goldin from Lego talking through the importance of diversity of minds, and outside perspectives. The key lessons were on unlearning and relearning with a view to bringing more ‘play’ perspective to solving problems. You’ll find no arguments from me on this one, and it’s something I talk about a lot in “The Creative Nudge”. Then Trevor Johnson from TikTok talked us through the important principles at his outfit of always having a ‘Day 1’ mentality and thinking about the builder’s mindset (something I imagine Julia from Lego knows something about too!). He also talked us through two fascinating, vital, and timely reminders of leadership success – the ‘radical candour’ of honesty in companies, and the importance of giving people sponsors, not just mentors in their careers.

Finally, Rebecca Hirst from EY gave us the b2b perspective, and she focused on the importance of being disruptive and distinctive – especially her own experience as a b2c candidate interviewing for a very b2b role. Her main reference was Gladwell, and his rather excellent ‘Outliers’.

To be honest, if we’d stopped there it would have been a very useful morning but it – like always with The Marketing Society – we went on to try something different and interactive. We split into break-out groups to discuss lessons and to share learnings with new people.

So, what did I learn? Two new book recommendations that I must try: ‘Doppelgangers’ by Naomi Klein, and ‘Breath’ by James Nestor.

And then I was struck by some observations:

1. The three speakers all had the word ‘Chief’ or ‘Head’ in their titles. Paradoxically it is a bit easier when you’re in charge to be the ‘rebel’. The key is to be the leader who creates the conditions that mean others, especially junior staff, feel that they can take risks and, more importantly, fail. Leaders must be like farmers – creating the perfect conditions within which things then thrive.

2. All organisations seem to acknowledge that we need to be different, distinctive, and ‘creative’ to succeed. So why is it that 99% of inputs and outputs in marketing are so ‘samey’? The same tropes and cliches in both words and pictures, and the same safe strategies. It is hard for humans to do new things, and it is very hard for most companies (especially bigger ones) to break the norms. Again, it is the responsibility of leaders at all levels to champions new and different ways to approach problems – or to work with people who can help them create those conditions.

3. All of us are facing the same challenges. So therefore, let’s be honest, open, and collaborative as marketing folk in sharing challenges and learnings. Sessions like this morning are a good place to start.

4. Not all marketers are created equal. Companies like Lego and TikTok operate under a lot less restrictions than sectors like Pharma, for instance. But equally, I find that things like regulation are often an excuse for not doing things as much as a reason. I notice as well – now that I’m not in the agency world – that ‘the client’ is the best excuse agencies have for not actually being different or brave.

So, there you go. A productive hour. And certainly, way more productive and useful than sitting in one of my old company Zooms. My advice would be to sign up for one of these things a week – it’ll take your brain to new and interesting places with new and interesting people. Not bad for a random Tuesday morning.

Kevin Chesters is a strategist, trainer and speaker (and former agency head). 
You can find him at 

Read think piece from Michael Bayler


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