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From CMO to CEO: What it’s like at the top and how to get there | B2B Marketing | Leadership

Pete Danks, CEO at Carbon DMP, stepped up to the top role after a career in marketing. He shares what life is like at the top and how he made that transition

Pete Danks, CEO, Carbon

Why did you decide to take the role of CEO?

The transition into my CEO role was a slightly unique one. Carbon is a subsidiary of Clicksco. I joined as CMO of Clicksco to look after consumer marketing efforts across a number of sub-divisions and subsidiaries. Over time, Clicksco focused its efforts on a small handful of its subsidiary businesses, one being Carbon. I found myself increasingly working on that part of the business. It got to the point where I was becoming responsible for the operational and commercial running of Carbon and the group CEO felt the natural step up was for me to take full responsibility for the whole of the operations at Carbon, not just sales and marketing.

Did you enjoy the operational side?

Yes I did, though that was the most challenging bit. I had to spend time learning. I had to get myself under the skin of an incredibly complex Cloud business that’s processing about a billion data events every 24 hours. I’m not a technologist, so my challenge has been to make sure I’m adding value to two or three departments when I’m not a domain expert.

What are the skills you’ve had to acquire to take the CEO role?

One is making peace with the idea that you can’t be the go-to expert for every part of the business. That isn’t your job as CEO and that’s why you need a strong leadership team who drive their functions. I’m never going to know more about tech than my CTO, and I just have to be comfortable with that, and understand that my job is to help the CTO in other ways.

One of the ways you get there, is learning to ask the right type of questions. That’s a skill I’ve had to get good at because the wrong kind of questions come across as micro-management, naive, or time-wasting. It’s about getting the answers I need to run a business to report to the chair at a macro level but also let my team get on with their day job.

The final thing I’ve become aware of is the idea of always being on the record. As a CEO, a casual chat in the kitchen is still a chat with the CEO.

How were you recruited?

The CEO [of Clicksco] started to focus on a few of Clicksco’s subsidiaries. And Carbon was where my passion was. Of all my responsibilities as CMO, it was the one where I was most excited. I think that translates into energy and drive, and therefore I got closest to it and understood it better than other parts. This was a pull to this part of the business.

I had to create the role. There wasn’t a divisional CEO. It wasn’t run like that, so I had to create the role and work with my chairman to make sure he supported it and that it was the right thing for the business. We agreed that I needed to take full responsibility and make the changes I wanted, if those changes work I could take some credit for that, but I’m also accountable if things go wrong.

Were you always planning to be a CEO?

I don’t think I was. I’ve always thought of career planning as critical but not with the rigour that some people do. I know folk who have three or five year plans and very detailed milestone they feel they have to achieve. I think that’s great if it suits you, but for me the biggest question I ask myself every 18 months/two years is am I still learning? Am I still growing? And am I still shipping value back to the organisation? If I can say yes to all of those, then I do an exercise to work out how I can keep doing that for the next few years, and I think about the sectors I’d like to learn more about or skills I’d like to learn more about. I don’t set myself incredible rigorous targets, I set myself broad objectives to make sure I’m ticking those boxes.

Pete Danks’ career history:

  • CEO at Carbon DMP (subsidiary company of Clicksco Group) – current
  • CMO at Clicksco Group – 3 years 10 months
  • Industry head at Google – 3 years
  • Head of ecommerce and direct marketing at Joseph Joseph – 1 year
  • Head of marketing at – 1 year
  • Head of acquisition marketing at – 2 years 8 months
  • Marketing manager at Yahoo 2  years 3 months
  • Business development manager at NetBooster 1 year
  • Marketing degree

How have you sought advice?

There’s a few key groups. One is my wife. She’s been in and out of this industry for about as long as I have, so she’s also a peer which is great. She’s also pretty brutal in a good way, and that’s what you need: straight and honest feedback. Over the 15 years or so, I’ve built a handful of key relationships that have stayed that test of time – former colleagues, former customers. I try to circle back to them as often as possible. I was brought in by the group CEO of Clicksco, he’s also the chairman of Carbon. I have a good relationship with him. He was my customer when I was at Google, so I’ve known him for a long time. While his job is to give me a hard time on day-to-day matters, we also have a strong relationship.

Did you have any worries about what being CEO would be like before you started the role?

Not enough! There are pressures. One of my weaknesses is having a slightly naive optimism in life. It can work well in certain areas. But I think in hindsight the pressure has been more significant than I thought it would be.

What were the biggest challenges for you?

There’s that well trodden cliche from senior leaders which says that there’s not many places to go and de-stress, share, gossip and talk to peers. The reality is that if I go and unload a bunch of my concerns and stress onto someone reporting to me, it’s just not appropriate. So when trading is tough, or a deal is looking hard, or we’re under pressure from compliance, I can’t show stress and concern with the rest of my team because I don’t want them to focus on that, I want them to focus on the solution. So there’s this element of being lonely at the top, so that’s where your support network has to come in. It has to come from outside so you’re not bringing that negative energy in.

Do you speak to other CEOs as part of this network?

My network is something I’ve been working really hard on. I relocated my family to take this role. We moved a year and a half ago up to the North East of the UK. That was a big move, not just geographically but socially. It meant it was harder to engage with my old peer group, which is predominantly London focused. I’m slowly starting to build my network here now to spend time with folk who have similar challenges. I’m meeting people with similar roles in tech and online in the North East. There’s plenty of people to meet but you’ve got to carve out the time to go and do that. It can feel a bit selfish doing that sometimes when you could be in the office coaching someone or working on a project but you’ve got to find the time because it makes you a better leader and your business gets the value of that.

What convinced you to make such a big commitment for this role?There were two or three things that convinced me to take the CEO role. I spend a lot of time on the train because I was up and down from London and the office, pretty regularly. That meant I spent a lot of time at neither, I was inbetween. As much as you think it’s easy to communicate on the move, it’s not as good as when you’re in the room. So it was operational.

Trying to get a work/life balance in any career role is hard but I found myself doing really long days, in and out of London and the North East.  I didn’t see a lot of my family during the week and that’s not good for your mental health, or your family. It puts work in between you which is not a good thing. I don’t think I was being that effective in doing good enough work, because I was distracted travelling, I wasn’t working as hard as I could be.

It’s a huge thing to take on, and of course it did add a bit of stress because you can’t just reverse that decision. It’s not something you want to walk away from.

Did it require a change in mindset?

I had to learn quite quickly in order to get the broad view. It comes back to asking the right questions. One of the things that really matters is can I make an impact? Because if I can’t there’s no point in worrying, I need to trust my team. The ability to get breadth and depth into the organisation very quickly, that was a mindset I had to work very hard on.

The things you don’t worry so much about as a CMO become critical when you’re running the business.You start to really worry about things like cash-flow, cost, and equity. CMOs will have run P and Ls and will be good at understanding money in and money out but their money in and money out doesn’t necessarily dictate if everyone is going to get paid at the end of the month. It’s a different type of P&L and there’s a pressure that comes with that. I’ve had to make sure I take that stuff seriously.

General morale and happiness across a whole organisation is also a big thing.  The average CMO will be worried about morale just within their department, which is what they’ve been empowered to do. My job is to work with developers one moment, and sales the next. On paper they’re very different teams with different needs and requirements. They all want Carbon to do well but in a different way, with a different set of results. The other nuanced bit that I’m getting closer to is thinking about our footprint within the political and macro world. This means things like meeting with the local education institution, we’re working with universities now, and with local enterprise partnerships. All these are naunced pieces of the CEO role that you don’t pay much attention to when you’re not in that senior leadership team.

Did your role change the metrics you were prioritising?

Obviously there’s KPIs every business leader looks at and they don’t necessary change but I have to start being responsible for all of those. But there are other metrics that make a big difference. For example every quarter I get feedback from my management team on me and I try to push them to be hard on to be brutal because I have to remind myself that if I’m not getting better and giving value back, we’ll start failing as a business. It does make you think differently about how you sanity check and how you score and reflect personally.

How did you adjust yourself to the CEO role?

One thing I learned from a CFO at Google was ‘as a senior leader you have to leave some fires burning’. Meaning you can’t fix everything. The skill is in identifying which of those fires can burn away, without burning the house down. That’s been something that I’ve tried hard at because each department has a fire burning – it’s all they can see and they’ll be very fixated on that. They’ll be screaming at me and telling it’s what we need to fix but it may not be the case. I’ve definitely adjusted how I see the noise and filter and feed back to let folk know that I can hear their concern and it doesn’t mean it’s not important. But if there’s another three fires they’re not aware of, it’s up to me to balance resources and balance all the needs. That’s been a big adjustment. I’m not marketing anymore, it’s no longer the be-all and end-all of the business, and marketing technology is not the be-all and end-all of the business. Where you get to is that the customers are the be-all and end-all of the business. If the fires aren’t impacting them, they can burn. I think with a lot of businesses, any challenges with processes that aren’t detrimental to the customer can probably wait.

What is your advice for those considering moving to the CEO role from CMO?

One of the things that I love is that because I have accountability and responsibility, I can impact the whole business. One of the frustrations you have when you’re in an organisation you’re passionate about, is wanting to change something that’s not within your remit. And that’s very true in large corporations no matter how senior you are. The ability to make an impact and push changes through can be very rewarding. But that is a double-edged sword because that means all of those decisions – good and bad – have to rest with you.

If I was to go back and do it again or take any CEO role in the future, I would spend a bit of time reflecting on the areas that I know I’m weaker at. We all have our weaknesses, some folk find it easy to quantify those, but if they don’t they need to work with a peer or a coach and get some of that stuff teased out and get feedback. Then find ways to eliminate those weaknesses. So make sure your management team are good at the things you’re not good at. Or make sure you’ve got vendors in place that can help you do the things you’re not good at.

There will be some specialist parts of the business that you just won’t have the skills for. I’ve not studied law, but I have to look at all the contracts that come through. So we have a legal counsel, there’s no way I’m going to comment there. If you don’t have a law degree you need to make sure someone on your senior leadership team does. If you haven’t run cash flow or balance sheets, you’ll need an FD or someone to come and do those roles. You can’t do it all you need to be absolutely clear what it is you can do.

You need to do a skills audit of your senior leadership team. I don’t think it’s unreasonable. You need to gauge the strengths of a team that you’re probably going to inherit. If you don’t do some due diligence on the folk that are either going to make or break your career, I think that’s a big miss.

Have you missed marketing?

I’ve missed being close to customers. I’ve missed selling and listening and getting product feedback. On the marketing communications side, I’ve missed little things like not having access to data and basic KPIs that I’m used to having. It is also a reminder that you’ve got to let go of some of those disciplines if you want to grow into the new discipline. It’s not a frustration, but sometimes it would be nice to get hands on and under the skin of things, but I just have to make peace with that.

Did you find it difficult to detach from the marketing team at first?

Yes very. I’m sort of lucky that we don’t have a CMO in the business right now. We have a marketing lead, and they’re growing into that role and doing a great job. I try to impart bits of my knowledge from former experience in a style that isn’t dictatorial because otherwise I’ll find myself just doing my old role again.

There’s so many parts of the marketing mix that I’d love to get stuck into but I also can’t tell my management team not to micromanage if they see me doing it. I have to keep my hands off.

Did you identify people to be your successors for the CMO role at Clicksco?

We didn’t actually. We did a transition. A lot of the CMO’s responsibility was in the Carbon division anyway, what we did was make sure we had enough folk in that function to carry on that work. As Clicksco Group started to trim away some of the business units had less of a requirement. I still sit on the management board and advise on the marketing stuff when required. But those needs have dropped a bit.

I think it would be hard [to prepare a successor] unless you had a good long transition period to get up to speed in one role and do a hand-over in the other. There’s no point convincing yourself that your way was the only right way. You need to make sure that you back off and let someone come in and do it their way. Otherwise you end up leaving the wrong kind of legacy, which isn’t right for anyone.

What are the transferable marketing skills you use in the CEO role?

Communication for sure. One of the things I do internally is communicate the vision. We fixate on Intent Data – I need to make sure the whole company knows why that is important.  I think about vision and mission every day. So consistent clear communication – if you’re in a marketing team that’s already something you’re good at. You end up having an internal audience rather than an external.

Most senior marketers have to run P&L, that’s great training for the company wide P&L, and how to manage accounts.

Client and customer focus is different when you’re in marketing because you’re not necessarily engaging with the person who pays the invoice. We’re still worried about what our customers think and that discipline is very valid. I see the CMO role as one where if you don’t wake up worrying about what your customers are thinking you’re focusing on some of the wrong areas.

How can you ensure your legacy remains after you leave?

You have to ask yourself which parts of your role deserve to be legacy. It’s good to have fresh talent because marketing disciplines change. There’s a danger of thinking it stays that way forever, which I think is the wrong mindset. Think about the areas that are really working, that genuinely have momentum such as creating value for the business and the client. That momentum should be your legacy. If there are processes too good to break, no one is going to break them. If you have to justify why they should be kept in place, then I wonder if actually they need to be disrupted.

What was it like going from CMO of a large company to CEO of a smaller company?

My step up to CEO was an internal promotion, I was lucky because I knew the people I was reporting to. The bigger move for me was from Google into Clicksco. It’s a business that is comparably bigger but it all boils down to the same thing. For some folk, they don’t want to work for a company that no one has heard of. For me, I’ve been lucky to have worked at some of the biggest online companies in the world but then also some companies that people have never heard of. I’ve made peace with both sides – and it’s great to have experience in both – but the reality is that it comes down to the individual. Do you want to have more control in a smaller business, or less control in a larger business?

Very few of us in life are going to become CEO of a business the size of Google. It’s unlikely you’re going to get control of a business that size. Moving to a smaller company can be incredibly beneficial, you get much closer to your colleagues, much closer to your product, it becomes an intimate work experience. As opposed to being one of tens of thousands of staff. I never met the CEO of Google and wasn’t necessarily expecting to. I don’t think any of my immediate colleagues had either.

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