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20 min read

Spotlight On #1 – John Rowley, Head of Ecommerce at Ferrero

This article was updated on: 24.03.2023

Welcome to the Spotlight On series, where we get to sit down with some of the most inspirational marketing leaders from some of the UK’s most exciting brands. We learn about their careers, their challenges and their achievements, all to inspire you to grow your own career.

This interview is of John Rowley on an individual basis and his career progression to date. All opinions, ideas and comments were current at the time of filming and do not necessarily reflect those of his current or former employer, respective parent companies or associates/colleagues.


00:20 – Introduction to John Rowley and his role


Welcome, John to our Spotlight On series. This is a really exciting one, to have you on the show is pretty cool. Can we start off by talking a little bit about your current role?


Yeah, absolutely! It’s a really varied role, it’s at Ferrero, it’s direct to consumer, which is a little bit different as a business model within what they do. It covers five key areas fundamentally:

  • Commercial – pricing, promotional and product-related tasks
  • Marketing – this is where my background is from and this covers digital performance marketing in particular
  • Technical – anything that goes alongside the commercial and marketing elements such as running the website, split testing all of the different tools that we need both front-end and back-end to run an online business 
  • Fulfilment – picking, packing, personalisation and shipping
  • Customer care 

All of those things mean that it’s really a hyper-varied role. It’s probably the most varied role that I’ve done in the last 15-20 years, and it’s definitely one of those that every day is a little bit different. There are some commonalities, but every day is definitely different. 


You mentioned that you started your career more on the performance marketing side. How much of a challenge was it, or how much of a shift in mentality was it, to start to pick up those wider responsibilities? 


A shift for sure. It’s come in phases, really. When you start with a marketing background, most modern digital marketers always have that eye on return on investment, whether it’s direct sales or lead acquisition. That made it a little bit smoother moving into an ecommerce and commercial world which although I’ve done before in previous roles, Ferrero really dialled this up. The commercial and technical aspects are relatively similar because again, most digital marketers have some knowledge of technical and some knowledge of the commercial. Fulfilment, shopper support and customer care areas are different because you go from talking to consumers and shoppers to talking about boxes and operations and automation and load notes and thickness of cardboard etc, which is a very different world from where I’ve been previously! Shopper support rounds all of that off because everything that any marketer is doing is thinking about the shopper or thinking about the consumer or the company that they’re trying to sell to or pitch to. So again, that feels quite natural but fulfilment is probably one that stands out as being the most different that over time, you get used to and then all of a sudden, you’re talking to packaging teams about different corrugates and it feels natural but it’s definitely an evolution.

03:21 – Communicating with stakeholders


As you have previously pushed more into the digital leadership role, how do you find the conversations are changing? Presumably, you’re now talking to Chief Execs, Directors, and people that are very well established within a large organisation who perhaps are not quite as interested in the detail. Are you having to bridge the communication gap?


Yeah, for sure. Digital in any established organisation has an incubation stage and there’s going to be an educational phase of that as well. I describe it as educating and informing at the same time, for example, if I was talking to peers, I’d be talking about, return on investment on organic or return on investment on a channel or campaign. When you’re talking to senior stakeholders, the one big takeaway for me is saying less can be saying more. It’s important to educate on what is meant by certain things, so if there’s a really important KPI such as organic traffic growth, senior sales aren’t necessarily going to understand what organic traffic growth means. Therefore, educate them on what you’re talking about from the shopper’s perspective (because everyone’s a shopper so can therefore understand user journeys) and then the fact that the metric has increased by 20% or 30%  starts to make it more tangible. Without that education, it can be a number overload where they don’t understand what you mean and then they switch off or lose interest. 

05:06 – Staying relevant and innovative


With more of your time shifting into having to have different types of conversations as your remit becomes quite varied, how are you making sure you’re staying relevant and that your digital strategies that are happening across multiple brands are still innovative and going to cut through? What’s your method to keep on top? 


There’s no shame in saying that following competitors is a good thing. You can call them competitors or other people that play the same game. You can play the same game and you can play it by different rules, and there are loads of books that talk about that. So following your competitor is something that’s worth doing. 

Having a really solid team around you is essential. The number one thing that you need as a digital leader, is to make sure that you’re getting information from other people. If you’re the most intelligent and most up-to-date person in the room, you’re doing something wrong. As a digital leader, you need people around you who are telling you that. The analogy that I use is the US president, for example, he doesn’t need to be an expert and up to the minute with the economy, the budget, the war etc but he definitely needs a team around him who is able to provide that information to allow them to make critical decisions. 

Something that Jeff Bezos talks a lot about is having a team around him that is empowered to make their own decisions and feed him information so that he only needs to make 1, 2 or 3 key decisions a day. If he’s making 10, 15 or 20 decisions, he’s been given too much information and then the quality of those decisions drops. Having a team making sure that you’re doing all those good things is critical, and 

The third thing is taking a step back and asking “what have we done and what’s that journey been like?” and looking forward as well. Talking to industry experts across all of the different fields that have already been touched on is really key to planning out what the next 5, 10 or 25 year plan looks like. Although, you know, your guess is probably as good as mine as to what the next 10 years look let alone 25! But having that trajectory and knowing what you want to achieve through an objective I think is really key. Moving from KPIs to OKRs is something that we’re trying to embrace as well. And that really kind of allows you to point in the right direction. Albeit you don’t quite know what that road looks like.

07:51 – How to grow into a strategic marketer


What can you recommend to people who want to follow a career path to being a strategic advisor? What can they work on? What can they learn so that they are more employable to someone such as yourself?


I think there are two things. Whenever we talk recruiting, we talk skill and we talk will. Skill is something that comes over time as you become more involved with different companies and get higher up those relevant ladders. Skill will come and build. 

The biggest single piece of advice would be to really concentrate on the ‘will’ factors which everybody takes for granted. There are a number of things within ‘will’. There is the whole ‘fail-fast mantra’ and being able to learn from those failings. Some of my biggest skill improvements have come from failing, although I don’t like that word, but learning how to improve something and then putting that into action. I think that’s critical. 

The other one is to behave for the job that you want, not the job that you’re in. Don’t behave for the job that you’re in today and expect a promotion. You’ve got to already behave for the next role that you’re looking for and then when somebody’s making a decision on whether to recruit you or not, it’s a no-brainer because you’re demonstrating the right behaviour and even doing the job sometimes. There’s always tension between people doing their boss’ role and the mentality that “I’m already doing it so why aren’t you paying me for it?” Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. Hopefully, under the watchful eye support of the next level up means that you’ve got that safety net and you can learn a lot doing that. 

So your skill comes by succeeding and learning from your failings and then being really confident in making those moves and pushing yourself is what I would look for in anyone that’s working in my team.

10:30 – Breaking into the digital industry


It’s an awesome position that you’re in at the moment and it’s probably quite enviable for a lot of people in the digital space to work up to something like that. So let’s look back a little bit, how did you first get into digital and what drew you into the industry?


I’m going to show my age! I started in 2001 around the time that MySpace launched. I started playing around with MySpace, not really knowing what I was doing, producing images in PhotoShop, adding them to my MySpace page and creating my own website on the MySpace platform. That’s what ignited the initial fire.

I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I went to university but I knew it was something to do with computing. When I went to university to look for courses, someone told me that software engineering will pay me the highest salary and I thought, that’ll do then! This degree was mostly computing and after years one and two I thought about tweaking what I wanted to do slightly. I was really fortunate to complete a placement year over in Loughborough and I had an incredible mentor whilst I was there. It was at an ecommerce business and I learned a huge amount not only about ecommerce but more importantly, what I wanted to do as a career. I finished my placement year wondering how I could tailor everything that I’d learned on placement into my final year. I ended up adding business and marketing modules and tailoring my dissertation around marketing, tying it in with the first year of the App Store launching. As a result of that, I knew that it was definitely the digital marketing space that I wanted to be in. I worked for 7 years or so in different places, moving quite quickly between businesses, spending 12, 18, 24 months within each business. At the time, it felt very quick and now looking back on it, that was fundamental to gathering that cross-functional experience across different businesses. I gained experience in selling everything from single solar panels to multi-million pound wind turbine software engineering solutions to technology for gearboxes. I ran local, UK and international websites and all of the digital marketing that went along with that and I also did a lot of the legwork in the early days as I worked as a one-man band up to a big team. At this point, we had some people that were coming in and I was starting to get into a mentorship position and then I moved to  Thornton’s nine years ago now. 

I moved to Thornton’s into a search and affiliate position which was a sideway step. I went from global digital marketing to search affiliates but in a much larger industry and organisation. This was a very conscious decision to move horizontally rather than vertically into a bigger industry. Over time, that role naturally developed. It started with search, and then affiliates got added on and then all of a sudden CRM got added on and then all of a sudden it was into the full marketing stack effectively. Then, Ferrero acquired Thornton’s which led to more career progression into a digital marketing position with commercial elements starting to add in and then technical elements adding in. 

Looking back on it, there are so many individual steps that you take but now it all makes sense. It’s all part of the journey. When you’re on that journey, you don’t necessarily see it. It’s only now, retrospectively looking, that you can say “that was really important, learning those things at that moment in time.” 

15:35 – The importance of computer science


For anyone who’s thinking of entering the industry, how important do you think computer science is and the ability to programme?


My biggest learning from computer science was the way of thinking. For those who know software engineering, it’s that debugging mentality of identifying what’s the problem and taking it step-by-step to understand what’s gone wrong and then fixing that specific point. If it doesn’t work, go back and look again. It’s that mindset that was more important for me to understand than the language of computer science itself. I think it’s a universal thing within computer science and software engineering.


So is that not necessarily something that you specifically look for on CVs now then? Are you looking for something slightly different when you’re bringing in either junior or mid-weights? 


Absolutely, yeah. Depending on the role, the candidate needs to show a certain level of skill and experience either within an organisation or multiple organisations. The CV gets you so far and gives you some of that information, but it definitely doesn’t show their ‘will’. It will absolutely show the skill and that’s the first criteria but then when you’ve got the person in front of you, within a few minutes, you’ll understand the ‘will’. If they’re applying for a role, they’ve got a certain amount of will, but sometimes people are there because they just want more money but then there are others who really want to push themselves and progress and are probably applying for a job that is slightly out of their comfort zone. Why would you apply for a job that’s within your comfort zone that you can do with your eyes closed? Those kinds of checks are more important than the skill that is shown on the CV.

17:33 – Having a proper mentor and how to find one


How important is it, even during an early point of your career, to be going out and finding a mentor and what should people be looking for?


I still talk about my placement year in Loughborough which was the single most transformative year of my life. It pointed me in the direction of the journey that I’m still on now. Having a proper mentor is really important. 

The flip side of that, having mentored others myself, is that it’s the single most rewarding thing that I do. I’ve mentored people in various positions and on some occasions when we’ve got separate ways, we’ve just happened to get back in touch. In one case, someone that I mentored got in touch and 8 years later, I learnt that she is now mentoring her set of people and she very kindly said that I pointed her in that direction. The mentorship that I received, it feels like I’ve passed it on and it’s genuinely the most rewarding thing that I do. Numbers and commercial results are brilliant but the fact that mentorship allows you to transform or help somebody on their career journey is super important. 

My pinpoint on mentoring is not to confuse it with coaching, which I’ve heard a lot of people do. I’ve been coached as well and it’s something completely different. If I were to summarise the two, mentoring is somebody telling you what you might want to do and coaching is being asked questions. C had around 10 sessions of coaching during my early Thornton days, and that was equally transformational. I was asked probing questions that make you think “yeah, it’s a really good question” and then you have to answer it. They’re not necessarily work-related questions, they can go back to your childhood, asking questions about things that inform how you do things today. If you have the opportunity to be coached, 100% take it because it will open your eyes up to why you do things in a certain way and it might also help you do things differently as well. S

20:11 – Knowing when to stay in a role vs when to move on


You moved into Thornton’s which then became Ferrero and you’ve done a very decent stint there. What do you think has been your core reason for staying? What’s been the thing that’s enabled you to grow? 


Two things. There’s a business side and a personal side. The first is asking if there is still potential to go further from a business perspective. So are we at the pinnacle of where we want to be? Nope. So is there room to keep going and is there that progression from a business standpoint? That’s got to be there, otherwise, you’re just looking to sustain the same level which is a different set of challenges and probably would lead to the same level of duration there. The future business roadmap, and if it’s exciting, will keep people sticking around. I call it a CV-worthy roadmap. 

The other side of that is the personal side. Am I still learning things and am I still being challenged to think in a different way? If I knew absolutely everything and I could do my job with my eyes closed, it would be boring, right? You could have a really exciting business roadmap but if you think “I could do all of that tomorrow”, then is that exciting? Do you want to get out of bed and do you want to work on a Sunday when you have to? Probably not, if you’ve not got an exciting roadmap and it’s not challenging you.

In order for things to be exciting, you’ve got to have that drive to want to learn. Take the cardboard example, I’m not a cardboard expert. I don’t know about different packaging materials and different types of fulfilment and so the opportunity that continues to present itself to me is exciting because I get to learn new things. If I knew it all, it would probably be easier but I would miss that spark that allows you to be challenged and think how am I going to tackle this? How am I going to pull different levers within a large organisation? How am I going to continue to develop myself? Really that’s what it comes down to. If every day isn’t a school day, what’s in it for you?


Key takeaways for me there are:

  • You need to be within an organisation that is growing or at least growing in terms of its opportunity
  • You need to tie that in with a mentality of progression and learning and development

And if those two are there, you’re likely to hang around in your current role. 


Definitely, it’s those two things tied together. A business will have a reason for being and an individual will have a reason for being and if those two things marry up, you’re fighting the same cause. Business trajectory and individual learning opportunity should be considered and if they’re both there, then why would you move?

There are always pull factors from other organisations and there are always push factors within your own business. You always need to weigh those two things up:

  • Is another opportunity pulling me away?
  • Am I being pushed in my current role?

24:14 – What role should purpose play?


For you, what role should purpose play in the organisation that you’re in?


I think it’s super important. It doesn’t have to necessarily be the exact same purpose. For example, my purpose in life isn’t to sell chocolate but it’s important that you at least resonate with your company’s purpose and believe in it. I’ve had offers that have come to me and asked whether I would move and it offered a similar in terms of learning and business trajectory but either the product is not as appealing or the company purpose doesn’t align the same. If you don’t resonate with the company’s purpose, you get that feeling in your gut as to whether it’s the right thing for you to do or not. There could be a stronger financial package or there could be a higher position or better job title but if the purpose isn’t giving you that warm, fuzzy feeling, then I think it’s really important that you take a long hard look at that and understand if it’s the right thing to do.


It’s difficult to get out of bed every day for something that you don’t believe in or buy into, right?


Yeah, absolutely. It helps that the products that we make are world-class. Believing in the product is a really important factor. You want to believe in the business and hopefully, if all of the people have that same belief, it just makes things a little bit easier.

25:48 – Agency vs in-house


What are the benefits of working in-house and have you ever been lured over to the agency side?


It’s a thing that I’ve not done and in my heart of heart, I’ve got a long tick list of things that I want to do and maybe packaging wasn’t always one of them but it is now! I think that would be really exciting. Some of the benefits of working in-house include knowing the intricate details of that specific business. Hopefully, if you’re in the right business and you’ve got the right people, it will feel like it’s almost your business. That’s something that you get from an in-house perspective. 

Some of the challenges, to balance it out, are that you can’t always move as quickly in-house as you perhaps can if you’re employing agency people to do some of those things. Sometimes you’re slightly more restricted by what you can and can’t do, but that’s by nature of being closer to that business and knowing kind of how that business operates. I can’t talk in terms of what the benefits and challenges are from an agency-side but certainly, you know, from my perspective, there are different benefits. There are also definite benefits of having an agency network supporting that business. Again, it gives you a little bit of balance of you know, best of both worlds.

28:13 – What makes a good agency-brand partnership?


From your perspective, what makes a good agency-brand partnership and how do you find managing those agencies?


The agency needs to be on the same wavelength and, speaking from experience, they need a certain level of resilience. An agency might come up with 10 brilliant ideas and pass them over to an in-house team and nine and a half of them will get rejected for whatever reason. So I think there needs to be real transparency and honesty between an in-house and an agency and vice versa. Part of the mission is for an agency to come up with 1,000 good ideas of which half of one will make it through to the public eye. Asking the agency to be as close as possible to the business means that there is less filtering of those ideas required. On the flip side, from an in-house side, pushing a challenge to an agency and saying, “we’ve got this challenge, can you come up with 1000 really good ideas of how we could potentially resolve it”. Hopefully, that’s really exciting for the agency because they’ve then got creative freedom. 

Being really transparent and having a relationship with the agencies that build over time is critical. Having account managers or agency-side teams in the same meetings is something that we’ve introduced that is really important because it makes it feel like a bigger team. It comes back to all fighting for that same purpose. If you’re all in the same team meeting,  you’re having a really joined-up conversation that the agency isn’t hearing third-hand or fourth-hand which is what makes ideas require more filtering. 

All of those elements lead to a relationship which builds up over time and a common understanding that leads to longevity.

31:03 – Advice to turbocharge your career


If you had to give advice to yourself back in 2001, what sort of advice would you give yourself to turbocharge your career?


There are three things. 

The first would be to be 100% willing and comfortable with failing, although I really don’t like the term failing. You learn more from failing than you do when it’s all going easy. When it doesn’t work, you learn a lot more. So my first bit of advice would be to be happy to fail and fail fast. 

Tied into that is to become an obsessive learner. If you can’t do something, learn how to do it. For example, my mum (sorry!), she can’t get the Sky remote to work and so she’ll pick up the phone and tell me she can’t get it to work rather than exploring how to fix that problem. Most people have got the internet, so she could find out what’s broken, how to fix it, and then the next time it happens, she’s got the information. Failing fast is really important and just learning everything. Almost never say “that’s not my skill set”. That’s probably the key reason that I’ve ended up in a wider, general position. 

The third piece of advice goes back to behaving for the role that you want and always looking at the next step. Always think about what’s next, both personally and for the business. 

If you want to hear more from John, follow him on LinkedIn.

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