Reflections on the role of Marketing in an uncertain world

My wife Carmen and I managed to get away to Madrid last weekend to meet our new granddaughter Bibiana and welcome her into the world. Then it was back to the circuit. Among other events I attended an excellent concert at Guildhall School of Music and Drama to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the first recorded Master of the Worshipful Company of Tylers and Bricklayers.  I also attended a marvellous lecture at Cass Business School by the great Charles Handy CBE, our foremost thinker on social and business trends, but the highlight of the week was our second Great Event of the year, the Spring Luncheon at Grocers’ Hall.

I wanted to hold one of our events in this lovely hall because some 16 years ago my career in the City was effectively launched there. On 14th February, 2000 (Valentine’s Day) a company called NXT plc held its Interim Results announcement there and at the same time announced my appointment as Chief Executive Officer. The company held patents for breakthrough audio technology that enabled the manufacture of flat panel loudspeakers. The company had had a stock market listing for many years but when it first announced this discovery in 1998 its shares were rerated and it began a rather too exciting roller coaster ride.

Our stockbrokers were Peel Hunt, one of whose founders is Christopher Holdsworth Hunt, a Past Master of the Grocers’ Company and that is why we held the function there. Christopher helped me raise £30m and we lived off that for the next three years or so. I stayed in the role for five years and finally decided to move on raising some more money prior to doing so.

It was a heady and challenging experience, and ever since then working in a non-executive capacity on several boards I have taken great care in the preparation of statements to investors and other stakeholders.

The Grocers’ company was founded in the fourteenth century but originates from the Guild of Pepperers, which dates from 1180. The guild was responsible for maintaining standards for the purity of spices and for the setting of certain weights and measures, particularly a gross, a dozen dozens. Hence the name. It ranks second in the Companies’ order of precedence after the Mercers. It is said that the Grocers used to be first in the order, until Queen Elizabeth I, as Honorary Master of the Mercers, found herself in procession behind the Grocers’ camel which was emitting unfortunate smells; as a result, the Mercers were promoted. It is said.

In 1694 the Bank of England was founded as a private company to bail out William III who had lost vast sums in ruinous wars. Initially the bank was located at Mercers’ Hall but later the same year the Directors engaged the hall of the Grocers’ Company for the purposes of their business, and continued to occupy it until the year 1732 when a new building was erected in Threadneedle St.

Today’s is the fifth of the Grocers’ Halls. The fourth survived the Blitz but still burnt down in 1965. It was described as the biggest conflagration in London since the Blitz. The new hall was opened in 1970 by the Queen Mother, who was also an Honorary Freeman of the Company.

Our guest speaker Liveryman Elizabeth Corley CBE, until recently Global CEO of Allianz Global Investors, gave an impassioned speech on her reflections on the role of Marketing and Marketors in an unconventional and uncertain world. This brings opportunities for the agile and truly gifted, but for the large majority, it is creating uncertainties and an environment in which trustworthiness has to be earned by our public institutions, corporations, or major brands.

Growth in most parts of the world has been too slow for too long. A slow growth world creates significant social as well as political strains. We are increasingly seeing the creation of easy ‘enemies without’ to excuse the problems within. Income equality is far too high as the top ten per cent in the UK and the US earn nearly ten times as much income as the full bottom 90 per cent.

This is leading to disillusionment with capitalism which we have seen before in the 1920s/30s, and again in the late 1960s/70s, always with a backlash. Today instant communication compounds the problem and it’s what people see and feel that matters, not the data – “the emotion of the argument is more powerful than logic”, as Einstein said.

All of this places an enormous responsibility on Companies and their leadership. The way corporations behave, their values, their disciplines and practices set the real and everyday example of what Capitalism actually is. This is where we, as Marketors, come in. It is our Company’s mission to make “Marketing a force for economic and public benefit”. Never has this been more vital.

Elizabeth spoke with conviction as someone trained in marketing who had gone on to be a CEO. The values, skills and competences we learnt and employ are vital. Firstly it is about true customer insight, a focus on customers in a fully fleshed way. It is vital that we define excellence in Marketing in a way that transcends a pure ‘promotion and communication’ brief and to have a brand that is lived with a rigorous client value strategy at its heart

In my speech I agreed that there is a crisis of trust.  And that is actually a crisis of leadership.  This crisis of leadership is a failure to make the right judgements and, put simply, to do the right thing. The trustworthy organisation needs to add an ethical dimension to what is legal. Compliance alone is not enough.

Too many organisations are trapped within a managerial, compliance culture that appears permanently risk-averse, terrified of litigation and propped up by lawyers and public relations people. Trustworthiness is personal and reciprocal. It is not for brands, corporations, CEOs or politicians to own. Reciprocal vulnerability makes accountability mutual. It means organisations are as exposed to their employees and customers as their employees and customers have traditionally been to them.  Making the right decisions and doing the right thing have never been more important.

As Sir Chris Powell said in his speech at my Installation, you can tell a company with genuine purpose because it’s shared by staff and customers. Doing the right thing can make good things happen to you in return. More than that, it can be a great motivator for staff and help attract talent. More than 50% of the graduates who joined Unilever said they applied because of its ethical practices. You don’t need a brand purpose that will save the planet, or eradicate world hunger; it can be as humble or as challenging as you like. But delivering on it is necessary and takes guts, and you need to stick to it, no matter what, or you could find yourself in a place where the sun doesn’t shine.

I was proud that six other Livery Masters were there to hear our words as well as a good cross section of our own members and their guests. Though our speeches were largely serious everyone enjoyed the beautiful room, lovely accompanying music, excellent food and wine and of course, most of all, convivial company. And to finish as this week we commemorate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death here is a sonnet:


‘Twas early this year that out went the call,

For all to come to the Spring Luncheon.

The Master had selected Grocers’ Hall,

To fill it the Clerk had used his truncheon.

Liz Corley spoke well of finance affairs,

Her presentation was both clear and strong.

The Master then spoke with graces and airs,

He hopes that he did not go on too long.

The year’s going well, attendance is good;

And there are plans for much further pleasure.

So get out your cheque books and come if you would;

Or we’ll have to sell some of the treasure.

But mostly remember if all of you could,

Good marketing is marketing for good.

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