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Mentors, talent and tech: how to build a successful career in marketing

We spoke to Simon Leadbetter, Group Head of Marketing, Communications and Digital at Knight Frank, about the state of marketing in 2020, what he's learned from working across diverse industries and his advice for future marketing leaders.

Q. Could you tell me a bit about yourself and your career journey so far?

I started my career in newspapers, working for publications such as the Daily Mail group and The Daily Telegraph. After that, I ended up in financial services and my career went between finance and media for a good number of years. Then a few years ago, I got an offer to join Countrywide property group. I had never considered working within the property industry before, but I ended up really enjoying it.

After 18 months, I got the offer to join Knight Frank. I started out as a contractor, essentially to advise them on their marketing operations. I made many recommendations, and was quite bold, thinking that I would hand over to a successor. Then I got the job full-time.

Since then, we have brought in some real talent to add to our existing experts and restructured the department. It has been a journey — it has taken us 12 months to get to this point and there is still more work to do in the meantime. Our task now is to accelerate marketing with the right structure in place.

Q. You’ve worked across many industries over your career — what insights have you brought from these experiences into your current role?

The two industries I have worked in that I have really taken the greatest lessons from are media and financial services. With media, I learned about the power of storytelling through content. Here at Knight Frank, we have amazing stories — the joy of property is that every house, every office, every person in that property is a story in itself.

As for financial services, I really learned about the value and power of data. I remember when I left media to go into financial services, I was astounded at the level of data they had. If newspapers had that kind of insight on their readers back then, publishing would never have been in trouble.

Q. How is your marketing team made up and how does it compare to teams you’ve had in the past?

I think many people join marketing because it is one of the best options in business — it is strategic, creative, analytical and incredibly diverse. However, marketing is becoming increasingly more like a science than an art. Now, it’s all about data, digital, analysis. Nevertheless, those skills are very specialist, so we have created a centre of expertise in the team to accommodate them.

Things like digital marketing, insight and creative content are like professional centres within the department. Then we have our marketing managers — their job is to have a broad understanding of all aspects of the business and marketing and know how to leverage those different, specific skills. It is a bit like the agency model: they ‘hire out’ the different skills within the department to deliver projects and campaigns.

Q. Knight Frank works across both B2B and B2C — when it comes to marketing, do you keep these two sides of the business very separate?

In terms of revenue in the UK, we are split 50/50 between our commercial and residential properties. Globally, it is 70% commercial and 30% residential. Historically, in marketing in the UK, we were focused on the residential side of things. For every pound we spent on the commercial side, we were spending many more on the residential. However, we have started to change the way we work from prioritising the residential side to having an equal split between the two.

I think that the differences between business and consumer marketing are sometimes overplayed. Many of us are both consumers and business decision makers. Therefore, I think you must consider the buyer in both roles when you target them with marketing messages. Telling Knight Frank’s residential customers that we also do commercial property is important, and vice versa.

Q. Looking towards 2020, what would you say is the main B2B marketing trend or tactic that you need to be on top of?

I think, for Knight Frank, it is the increasing demands and changing channels of our audience. Expectations have changed. The way that we communicate with our customers is becoming ever more demanding. People want to access us 24/7, 365 days a year and they do not necessarily need to talk to someone to do that. It is an entirely new way of communicating.

For example, with social media. I think we are in the late majority when it comes to our adoption of that channel, but our audience are adopting it quickly and asking us where our presence is. We need to be a leader in that. We can see various disruptor brands who do it very well.

Q. What would you say is the main challenge you’re going to have over the next year?

I think the perennial challenge for our industry, property, is always going to be economic confidence. That said any kind of economic stress is an opportunity for established players such as us, as it thins the competitive herd.

Other than that, I think a key challenge for us internally is changing the dialogue around marketing. Traditionally marketing was seen as a cost within the firm, a necessary evil, even. We need to view marketing as an investment. As a direct marketer, I know this to be the case. Where you invest an amount of marketing money and, if it is done right, you generate revenue. We are starting to prove marketing’s return on investment.

Whenever there is a downturn, marketing investment is reduced. Whereas, all the evidence and research would say that in those circumstances it is an opportunity to invest in marketing. Most competitors are going to cut their marketing investment, so we could increase our share of voice. It takes time to change those perceptions and beliefs of cost versus investment internally, but it is happening.

Q. What have been the key influences for you throughout your career in marketing — have you had any mentors that have made an impact on you?

Mentors have been a key part of my career journey so far — but I think you should have a group of mentors. I was told a long time ago that within this group you should always have an entrepreneur, an academic, a consultant and a senior employee in your organisation.

It is a bit like having your own personal board of advisors for your career. The entrepreneur is going to be a risk taker, the academic will help you with the theory behind any decision, the consultant advises on landing significant change in organisations, and the senior business leader will be able to give you great generalist advice on how to navigate corporate waters.

I have been lucky to have most of the mentors throughout my career and it has certainly helped me as I have developed my skills in marketing.

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