CEOs Add Creative to Their Mandates

As pressure to generate organic growth mounts, chiefs are popping into reviews

In a string of recent and ongoing advertising reviews, marketing is getting a seat at the CEO table.

Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman reacted to the creative concepts that agencies pitched in the finals of the company’s recently concluded global PC review. Likewise, Nascar CEO Brian France is playing a hands-on role in the racing league’s ongoing creative search.

Less active but nonetheless engaged in final pitches in Southwest Airlines’ ongoing review is CEO Gary Kelly. Corporate bosses also turned up in the final rounds of reviews for American Eagle Outfitters and Kohler Co.

Instead of rubber-stamping the recommendations of their marketing departments—­as CEOs have typically done in the past—these chiefs are actively participating. In some cases, it’s because advertising is in their blood. Whitman, for example, began her career as a brand manager at Procter & Gamble and later became svp of marketing at Disney. Also, Robert Hanson and France were marketing leaders before assuming the CEO posts at American Eagle and Nascar, respectively.

“Brian cares about marketing,” said Kim Brink, director of brand, consumer and series marketing at Nascar. “He definitely is a marketer. He has a clear point of view and will have a clear point of view on the agency selection.”

France, who became CEO in 2003, commissioned a massive research study in 2011 that’s triggering changes throughout Nascar, including the search for a new lead creative shop. The finalists are McCann Erickson, Young & Rubicam, Ogilvy & Mather and Leo Burnett. Whitman, who spent most of last week preparing for, reporting and explaining HP’s first-quarter financial results, declined to comment for this story.

In contrast to Whitman and France, Southwest’s Kelly reached the corner office via a series of financial posts, including controller and CFO. That may explain his more limited role in that search, which is down to Burnett, Arnold, TBWAChiatDay and Deutsch LA. “Gary did stop by while the agencies were presenting, but more for intellectual curiosity and to hear the various insights the agencies were bringing,” explained a Southwest representative.

Corner office involvement in ad reviews also reflects the reality that after years of cost cutting and growing through acquisitions, corporations are leaning on marketing to drive organic growth. While that obviously puts more pressure on chief marketing officers (and their agencies), it also gives them a chance to prove their worth. “Any involvement that puts the CMO at the big table—at the table with the CEO—is good for the CMO,” said search consultant Avi Dan. “It’s actually a positive sign because it can be a signal to the company that marketing matters.”

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