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In conversation with Santa Marku - Episode 9 - Inspiring the Next CMO series

Updated: Feb 9, 2022

Join Lou in a conversation with Santa Marku, a highly respected, senior global marketing leader with valued insight into strategic and digital transformation, marketing technology, product brand, and digital marketing.

Santa talks with us about:

  • her favourite word 'serendipity'

  • her love of family and how her parents have inspired her

  • her career with the likes of Thomson and British Standards Institution

  • the importance of two way clear communication

  • progressing and nurturing talent in teams

  • understanding the needs of your stakeholders and managing expectations - focus on the people

  • marketing technology (MarTech)

  • the best advice she has been given

  • her favourite reads and podcasts

Podcast channel: Website, Google Podcast, Apple, Podbean, Spotify

Links from the session:


Lou: Welcome everybody to our "Behind the Fluff, "Inspiring the Next CMO" podcast series. You can find lots of great resources on our website to help raise your game at Now, today, I would like to welcome Santa Marku. Santa is a highly respected, senior global marketing leader with valued insight into strategic and digital transformation, marketing technology, product brand, and digital marketing. Santa was also my line manager some 14 years ago at British Standards Institution and was pivotal in my development from a marketeer, as an executive to a manager. So, hello, Santa.

Santa: Hi there, Lou. It's lovely to see you. Really appreciate you inviting me to have this chat.

Lou: I am delighted.

Santa: It's been a long time. But I've seen you develop and what you've done over the last few years. I'm really, actually, really proud in terms of what you've achieved working at The International Bunch, setting it up. And actually, at the end, really inspiring in that way. So I'm pleased to be here. Thank you.

Lou: Well, you are a part of my little adventure, you know, getting me to where I am today. So thank you.

Santa: Well, that's the best thing.

Lou: It is.

Santa: Wow, you're welcome. That's part of what I've been doing.

Lou: Do I need to make you a stakeholder?

Santa: You can do whatever you like, my lovely. I guess the point here is that-- I guess the point here is, this is what I love to see going forward. As a leader, you'd love to sort of work with people, and see them flourish--

Lou: Yes.

Santa: Learn, but also... I take a lot from that as well, Sort of learning from what other people are learning--

Lou: Yes.

Santa: As they go through, listening to what their experiences are, and then being able to adapt that through your career, also with other teams that you work with. And, you know, I've worked with lots of people from interns that come in for a year, because they're having a gap year at university or it's part of their sandwich course--

Lou: Yes.

Santa: Versus, you know, senior leaders, like in other parts of the business, MDs or specific directors that are running a business unit. And it's always good to see how people improve, how people flourish, how people grow. So, I love that, and that's I guess, that's something that I love doing with teams, you know? So, you were part of that team, I was part of that team, and it's great to see the progression.

Lou: Well, you were one of my best bosses, you were up there.

Santa: Wow.

Lou: Yes, in the top three.

Santa: Wow, okay.

Lou: Yes.

Santa: Thank you--

Lou: Through my whole career, absolutely.

Lou: Now--

Santa: Alright.

Lou: Before we get started, we do a campaign called #IntBunchWordOfTheDay. And we like to feature a word that means something, and it could be any type of word. So--

Santa: Okay.

Lou: What would your word of the day be?

Santa: I guess it would be serendipity, I love that word. I love it because it's clearly a phenomenon that is about finding, discovering things almost by chance, but you need to have been discovering, or looking for things in order for it to manifest itself. And I love that because it's an unexpected discovery, and we should accept that type of discovery, and then think, "Wow, how did we come about it?" "What triggered that?" So, that would be my word, serendipity, I love it.

Lou: Brilliant, that is an excellent, excellent word. And you're absolutely right, you have to be in some sense you have to be doing things to be looking for it, to actually make discoveries. And you have discoveries that may not have been what you were initially looking for, but at least you were doing something to discover, if that makes sense.

Santa: Exactly, you're not going to be sitting on a sofa waiting for a discovery to happen. That's not--

Lou: Exactly.

Santa: Well, it works, you know, you've gotta be looking, you've got to be driven, you've got to be committed to looking for something that you're trying to make an improvement. You're trying to drive in a particular objective, and then you think, "Oh wow, this is really interesting." And this is where you look at people are calling it now to a certain extent, new category creation. It's like, what is something that... is a need, for example, that hasn't really been explored by customers? And then you look at it, it could be something that's existing, and actually you see a different, a way of positioning it, and messaging it, and therefore it becomes, you know, a brand new way of thinking, a brand new way of communicating a particular issue around a product or service, for example. So, you know, those are the sort of things. That's why those two, I see those things as working quite closely with the serendipity piece, because it is just, you still have to do something.

Lou: Yes.

Santa: And I think that's really important, and I think we should use that word more, more so in our daily lives

Lou: Yes.

Santa: Alright.

Lou: Well, I completely agree, because when you said it, I was thinking to myself, in the copy stuff that we do, I was thinking, why are we not using that word? It is such an excellent word.

Santa: It is a great word, love it.

Lou: So, yeah, you'll probably see that it's going to, it will definitely start trickling through into some of the stuff that we do, absolutely--

Santa: Good, pleasure.

Lou: And I love that you just taught me a new buzz term as well.

Santa: Ooh, I don't know, it's just really interesting, it's in the 'S' in the dictionary, it's really cool.

Lou: Okay, so, first things first. First, we want to know a little bit more about you, before we get into about your career. So, what's the best thing that you have discovered in the last year?

Santa: The best thing that I've discovered in the last year? That I can make some decent cocktails, I suppose, even though I don't drink. I don't really drink. I don't drink. Only on special occasions, which happens to be every day these... No, no, I'm joking. You know, I might have something at Christmas. But, I've bought myself-- No, actually, I didn't buy myself- I was out with a friend and she went, "Oh, because we've not seen each other for ages, I forgot to get you your birthday present." I'm like, "Okay, that was in March." And she got me a cocktail making set. So, the appliances - I should have put it up on the back so you could have seen them.

Lou: Yes.

Santa: You know, it was actually inspired by my son who turned 18. And he had a few friends come around, and I thought, I'm going to be a really responsible mother. I'm going to look after them, make sure they don't drink too much but give them a taste of something.

Lou: Give them mocktails. Let them believe it's got alcohol in it.

Santa: No, no. 18, it's okay. We're not in the U.S. here, yet, you know. So it's okay. He was 18. So I made him a tequila sunrise, which he thought, they all thought was delicious. And it is delicious because it's orange and it's got grenadine and a little bit of tequila. You know, I used all the appliances and everything. Yes, so I've discovered that. I'm not saying it's the best. But you know, it's one of the things, I suppose, where we've had a bit more time to do these sort of things. So, yeah, I guess I can say that. I'm sure that there are plenty of others. I'll say just sort of like experimenting with those cocktails on other people.

Lou: Yes, exactly. Well, you can have mocktails, can't you?

Santa: I can have mocktails, yeah. It's just that, it's not... Yeah. It's fine. I feel terrible. I feel like a terrible mother. But no, it's an experience. It's an experience because it was one.

Lou: Not terrible! I think that's something, I'm like, "Oh my God, my mum is so cool. She made us cocktails."

Santa: I don't know if they think about that, you know, especially when you're embarrassing them in front of their friends.

Lou: Well, yes.

Santa: But never mind, you know, as long as you're feeding them.

Lou: Exactly.

Santa: They're all right, they're happy.

Lou: Exactly. And like, when Santa and I first met before, because we haven't chatted for many, many years. And when we caught up before we did this podcast, I was saying, you know, I was asking her about how her son is. And I just couldn't believe that when I was working with Santa, he was a little toddler running around and now he's like, you know, off to uni. It's like, oh my God, this is wow!

Santa: Time flies. It really flies. A lot. Clearly, I just don't know where it's all gone, but I'm really... You know, it's quite interesting because my whole career at BSI has almost been parallel with my son because he was six months old when I started at BSI. And, you know, we used to have the Christmas parties. He used to come in on Christmas time, you know. His first entrance into the BSI building, I think he was nine months old. He came with my dad and my dad put him in. He was still barely sort of on one of the harnesses, trying to keep him straight and stuff. And, you know, he was coming in as well because he was doing his homework, coming straight from school. You know, great place, actually, because BSI permitted that in terms of making sure that, you know, people could see that type of environment. And you know, he was very good. And it may have meant that I could put more time and effort into my career at BSI as well. Yeah, and of course, you've also met my folks.

Lou: Yes, love them.

Santa: In, was it 2006 or so?

Lou: Yes.

Santa: You know, it's quite interesting how I've seen them grow as well, and you think, "Oh, how different. How things pass quite quickly, you don't realize because you see them every day." And then all of a sudden, it hits you. Wow, you know, especially during the pandemic.

Lou: Yes.

Santa: You know, being of a certain age, you know. It's quite difficult for them. But they only live 197 yards away from me.

Lou: I love that you've calculated that.

Santa: That's according to Google. Well, it's according to Google, isn't it? So I put my house in and I put theirs and that's what it comes to. So, you know, around the corner.

Lou: You love your metrics, don't you?

Santa: Well, I figured that's what you had, you know, we are going back to imperial, are we? I hope not. You should be keeping with the metric. You know, that's good.

Lou: Oh, fantastic. So, who inspires you?

Santa: Well, interesting you said that. Very close to home and I was gonna actually just say that, you know, my 75-year-old mother, really, I've seen her through the years, sort of really be the backbone of our family. And my dad of course. 75 and still working and has been working during the pandemic as a passenger assistant for children going to special needs school. So, you know, she's been in a minibus twice a day making sure that they're all belted up, making sure that they're not hurting themselves, making sure that things are working, and she's just done it. She's been amazing. And even though she could have shielded for longer, she decided that she just wanted to do it and she continued to do it. Clearly the council have given her the PPE and all the rest of it. You know, she's really loved by those children and she sees them through their entire secondary education, from 11 to 18. And she sees the differences and they love her to bits. You know, it's "Rosa this," and "Rosa that." So it's lovely to see that. So that's where I could see from that. Really, really close to home. From a professional perspective, there's a couple of... Well, there's one in particular that I think has really helped me, especially when we've been doing digital work, websites, Jakob Nielsen from the Nielsen Norman Group. And really, he's the guru for web user experience and usability. Amazing. I've used a lot of his stuff really. His empirical research to help and support ideas and to help and support us get to a certain place when it comes to websites, because everyone wants a flashy website, don't they?

Lou: Yes.

Santa: But if it doesn't meet the criteria of the user and it's too flashy, and there's too much, you need to think of that experience. And you know, we're all happy. I've been through this a lot, "Ooh, I like this. Can we just do this?" Boom. It's like yeah, but what is the purpose of that boom? What is the purpose of something moving when you think people need to have this information in an accessible way? You know, for me, it's about substance. It's about information architecture rather than design. Visual design is the last thing - I don't know if you know this - but visual design should be the last thing you think about when it comes to websites because it's about the infrastructure, so that the information is connecting people to information. And remember, always looking at it in conventional ways. Not to try and do something different just for the sake of it, but do things that are obvious. You know, where does the menu bar sit? Where does the location sit? So that it's obvious to any user, rather than it being having to find it.

Lou: Exactly.

Santa: At the end of the day, you want to make it as easy as possible to get people to connect to your information, and to reach the objective, which could be downloading a white paper on sustainability. Or it could be, actually, I want to quote for a particular service that I'm looking for. I come to you, make it easy for me to do that. Make it easy for me to do business with you.

Lou: When you are young, what did you want to be?

Santa: Well, I really don't know. I didn't really have much of... When it came to ambition and stuff, it was like, we... I'll give you a background, really, it's quite interesting. My mom and dad came immigrants from Italy. They had to work and they left us on our own. I'll tell you something. If it'd been these days, we won't be here. You know, we'd be in social care or something. I don't know. But I think a lot of people have this type of experience. I was going to school, walking to school on my own at the age of five, taking my five, six, you know, taking my brother. He was a little bit younger. Crossing Clerkenwell Road - in the City of London. Getting to where we needed to get to. And then also, what was quite interesting is that we didn't really have that support from the school structure either, really. I remember having a careers talk with Mrs. Carroll at the school that I used to go to and is no longer there. She said, "Oh, yeah, you're Italian. You've got some languages. You should go into international banking." And I'm like, we didn't really have that comm-- I mean, seriously, we did not have that type of communication of that. But also from a from a younger age, we just got on with it. We were there. I can't really remember my parents going to a school play because we would be out, off in Italy as soon as the door shut.

Lou: Yes.

Santa: Of the school. My mom and dad would be working late. My father was a chef. And therefore, had lots of different shifts. My mom did everything. She was a tea lady, right? A tea lady, a cleaner, all of those sorts of things that people that came in waves of immigration did at that time. A great story. My brother who was younger than me, my mom used to take him to a solicitor's office in Doughty Street and put him on the tea trolley to take him with her because you had no one to leave your kids with.

Lou: I love it!

Santa: Yeah, so, she was a tea lady in those days, where you used to go, "Would you like a cup of tea and a biscuit? Would you like..." You know, seriously. Those are great. But in terms of a career, in terms of what I wanted to be, none of that. But like I said, they inspired me 'cause they've got to this point. It's that work ethic. It's making sure that they provide for their families. All of this sort of stuff. But I did go into... I was gonna go to university, actually, which is really interesting, but I got an unconditional offer from Holloway and Bedford to read Italian. But then, I went to an agency. I wanted to take a year out. And ended up at Thomson Holidays. The best time of my life. Went on educationals. I'd never paid to go to Benidorm but I went on an educational there to check out some hotels, as I did to Tunisia, as I did to Alicante.

Lou: Educational!

Santa: Yeah, exactly, it was an education. But I had the best time. And I was in finance at that time. It was an overseas payments department where we had to reconcile things over a two-week period, paying those hotels. And at that point, that's where I learned a lot in terms of leadership. It's really interesting at that young age, quite a young age. I didn't go to university in the end to experience that, per se. I did my degrees. I did my degrees and my diplomas as I was working because I knew that they'd come in handy. I wanted to learn more about business, et cetera. And that's how I did my degrees in that way. But equally, I had lots of experience in finance. And then I thought, for some reason, I was also training lots of people, writing documentation, user how-tos, how to do what they needed to do step-by-step. I was managing a team, supervising the team at the age of, I think it might be 19 or something like that.

Lou: Wow.

Santa: And I think that's where I really got to learn about people and how they work and what makes them tick and what their hot buttons are, and how you can really make sure that they go down a route that they really want to go down. Make sure that we coach them stuff like that. And then I decided, right, for some reason, I think I might want to go into marketing. So I got a job at the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants. And there where they supported me, as a marketing assistant, that's where I started. At the Chartered Institute of Marketing Accountants, sorry. And actually, it was sending out packages to schools, running business school, business competitions, if you like. We used to go into a school and get people to play parts of being part of an organization and what they had to do. And really highlighting that from a student perspective. And dealing with companies as well from a professional development perspective. And you know, trying to get them to do the CIMA, qualifications, et cetera. And I was there for a couple of years, where, I mean, I loved it. I got great... I was traveling up and down the UK. It was like, oh, wow. For quite a young person doing this, running these sessions, enjoying every minute of it, but organizing the logistical part of it and everything. And fantastic. I had a great time. And so-

Lou: You sound like you had a lot of fun in your career.

Santa: I did. And especially after that what happened is I then took... I'd got that under my belt. I got my diploma, if you like, from marketing, CIM. And then went, you know what? I'm gonna take a year out and just go traveling, which is what I did because then I didn't have to do it cheaply-cheaply either. You know, I don't have to do the whole... We did some hostel pieces. So we went to southeast Asia, Australia, worked there for a greengrocer, florist. You have to do what you have to do in order to get to where you get to. So I had a great experience and then came back and worked for Euromonitor. So the market research and consultancy organization. Set up the Chicago office, actually, for marketing perspective. Was there for about a year and a half, two years. Loved it. Again, really been exposed to a lot of things quite early on and that's really provided a really great grounding for where I am now.

Lou: Fantastic. So, my last question to you, in this sense, is if you were to have dinner tonight with anybody, whether they are alive or dead, or just anybody you would ever want to in the world, who would it be?

Santa: Well, I guess there are a couple. Well, actually, there are a couple of... Well, I think there's probably three people. It's awful, isn't it. I can't go just one, can I?

Lou: No, you can have as many as you'd like.

- You know, I would think there are three that would come straight to my mind. Clearly David Attenborough. He's just a genius in everything he's done over the years in terms of how he's achieved, what he's achieved, how his message... What he's used his... He's used his expertise, if you like, to get the message out really, really quite powerfully. I'd like to find out more about that. Cherie Blair. I know some people think, "Oh, God," you know, Cherie Booth, right? She's one of the most eminent human rights lawyers, but she doesn't get the press that she deserves. I think that's because of-

Lou: Yes.

Santa: Her time with, you know, in government. Not in government but her husband's government. I'm sure she's got tons and tons of stories to tell.

Lou: Yes.

Santa: And the other one is Leonardo da Vinci. And the reason why I say him is because he was a genius and he was un... What was it? He was a genius who did lots of things. He was ahead of his time. People thought he was nothing. He was a crazy man. But clearly not because of the things that have come out from what he did all those years ago to the present day. And I see that and I think, right, okay. So, you know, sometimes you just have to wait. You have to just wait for your time to come. You might not see it but you can push it. But you push it and you get yourself a reputation that you might not... It wouldn't be unfair. It would be unfair, sorry. So that would be quite an interesting selection of people I think.

Lou: That would be quite a conversation. And I think the Cherie Blair one's really interesting because I watched something on the television the other day where they had Keir Starmer, and that's not my political party. But actually, I thought it was really interesting when he was talking, and he was talking about some really quite personal things about his family and when his mom passed away. And all this kind of stuff. And it made him so much more human. And that human connection is, as we know as marketeers, is incredibly important. And that resonance. But it did make me appreciate and respect him more. So that's the same with Cherie that I'd probably look into her a bit more now, because for me in my life, she was Tony Blair's wife. I never really... And like you said, without the press attention, and the press are very good at what they show and what they don't and how they manipulate your mind effectively. So I didn't really appreciate what she does or even think about wanting to know. So, I definitely would look her up.

Santa: I mean, the stuff that she's done has been amazing. It's just that, you know, now that she's out, that always continued in the background but that's not what you saw, you know. And it's a bit like at the moment, they do say the saying, "Behind every great man, there is a greater woman." And you know what? You see that in a lot of places, right? I mean, it sounds like I don't want to sound glib or anything, but you can see, you can see that. So it's really interesting for me that there are some brilliant women out there that sometimes don't get full credit for really in their own right. Get the exposure-