Mastercard’s Ajay Banga crowned 2021’s global brand guardian
While he may not be the most well-known CEO worldwide – that title goes to Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook – Ajay Banga, CEO of Mastercard for more than a decade before becoming executive chairman of the board of directors last year, is certainly one of the most admired and respected.
And his crowning as 2021’s number one brand guardian by Brand Finance as part of the annual Global 500 report is in recognition of his quiet but impactful achievements throughout his decade-long role as CEO and president of the global financial services giant.
Since taking the helm of Mastercard in 2009, US-based Banga has embraced technological innovation, ensuring the brand remained relevant despite a period of rapid change in financial services. Furthermore, he has championed the idea of financial inclusion, and has leveraged his influence to build strategic partnerships with financial institutions worldwide to help fight poverty.
Having previously served as a member of President Obama’s Commission on Enhancing National Cybersecurity, Banga is co-founder of The Cyber Readiness Institute and serves as a director of Dow Inc. He has secured a number of awards, namely the Ellis Island Medal of Honor 2019 and the Business Council for International Understanding’s Global Leadership Award.
Top 10 brand guardian winners 2021
Both companies have witnessed significant growth and penetration. While US graphics and chip-maker Nvidia has seen rapid brand value growth, Netflix surpassed 200 million subscribers for the first in January this year and continues to invest billions of dollars in original content development. And while Huang is renowned for his philanthropic gestures, Hastings is known for his ‘no rules’ rules workplace policy leading to an open and non-hierarchical structure.
According to David Haigh, CEO of Brand Finance, the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic have “required resolve and vision to safeguard - and in some cases, grow” company brands and some leaders, like Banga, have risen to the occasion.
Other leaders recognised in the top 10 for their brand guardianship included Alibaba.com’s Yong Zhang, the highest-ranking brand guardian of a non-US company, as well as Salesforce’s Mark Benioff, Honda’s Takahiro Hachigo and TCS’ Rajesh Gopinathan.
Women leaders have poor representation
Out of the 100 brand guardians recognised in Brand Finance’s annual report, 48 were CEOs of US companies, 25 from East Asia and 17 from Europe.
Only eight of the top 100 brand guardians are female, the result of female leadership in major corporations across the globe, although this is up from only four last year, with Susan Patricia Griffith of US insurance company Progressive taking the highest-ranking female brand guardian position at 28th.
According to Annie Brown, Associate at Brand Finance, the 8% representation of women in the Brand Guardianship Index 100 reflects the total sample which also was 8% female. “Women are equally capable of being exceptional leaders and it is about time that boardrooms reflect that,” states Brown.
When it comes to industry-specific brand guardians, the highest-ranking CEO in the banking sector is Citigroup's Mike Corbat, while in oil & gas, the credit goes to H.E. Dr Sultan Al Jaber of ADNOC, whose transformation under the astute leadership of Al Jaber since 2016 has taken the brand from strength to strength, attracting some of the world’s leading institutional investors as partners and raising more than US$64 billion since the start of its transformation.
Marketing matters: from IBM to Kyndryl
Prior to joining Kyndryl as Chief Marketing Officer, Maria had a 25-year career at IBM, most recently as the tech giant’s CMO where she oversaw all marketing professionals and activities across North America, Canada and Latin America. She has held senior global marketing positions in a variety of disciplines and business units across IBM, most notably strategic initiatives in Smarter Cities and Watson Customer Engagement, as well as leading teams in services, business analytics, and mobile and industry solutions. She is known for her work with teams to leverage data, analytics and cloud technologies to build deeper engagements with customers and partners.
With a passion for marketing, business and people, and a recognized expert in data-driven marketing and brand engagement, Maria talks to Business Chief about her new role, her leadership style and what success means to her.
You've recently moved from IBM to Kyndryl, joining as CMO. Tell us about this exciting new role?
I’m Chief Marketing Officer for Kyndryl, the independent company that will be created following the separation from IBM of its Managed Infrastructure Services business, expected to occur by the end of 2021. My role is to plan, develop, and execute Kyndryl's marketing and advertising initiatives. This includes building a company culture and brand identity on which we base our marketing and advertising strategy.
We have an amazing opportunity ahead at Kyndryl to create a company brand that will stand apart in the market by leading with our people first. Once we are an independent company, each Kyndryl employee will advance the vital systems that power human progress. Our people are devoted, restless, empathetic, and anticipatory – key qualities needed as we build on existing customer relationships and cultivate new ones. Our people are at the heart of this business and I am deeply hopeful and excited for our future.
What experiences have helped prepare you for this new opportunity?
I’ve had a very rich and diverse career history at IBM that has lasted 25+ years. I started out in sales but landed explored opportunities at IBM in different roles, business units, geographies, and functions. Marketing and business are my passions and I landed on Marketing because it allowed me to utilize both my left and right brain, bringing together art and science. In college, I was no tonly a business major, but an art major. I love marketing because I can leverage my extensive knowledge of business, while also being able to think openly and creatively.
The opportunities I was given during my time at IBM and my natural curiosity have led me to the path I’m on now and there’s no better next career step than a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to help launch a company. The core of my role at Kyndryl is to create a culture centered on our people and growing up in my career at IBM has allowed me to see first-hand how to prioritize people and ensure they are at the heart of progress in everything Kyndryl will do.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I believe that people aren't your greatest assets, they are your only assets. My platform and background for leadership has always been grounded in authenticity to who I am and centered on diversity and inclusion. I immigrated to the US from Chile when I was 10 years old and so I know the power and beauty that comes from leaning into what makes you different from other people, and that's what I want every person in my marketing organization to feel – the value in bringing their most authentic self to work every day. The way our employees feel when they show up for themselves authentically is how they will also show up for our customers, and strong relationships drive growth.
I think this is especially true in light of a world forever changed by the pandemic. Living through such an unprecedented time has reinforced that we are all humans. We can't lead or care for one another without empathy and I think leaders everywhere have been reminded of this.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve received?
When I was growing up as an immigrant in North Carolina, I often wanted to be just like everyone else. But my mother always told me: Be unique, be memorable – you have an authentic view and experience of the world that no one else will ever have, so don't try to be anyone else but you.
What does success look like to you?
I think the concept of success is multi-faceted. From a career perspective, being in a job where you're respected and appreciated, and where you can see how your contributions are providing value by motivating your teams to be better – that's success! From a personal perspective, there is no greater accomplishment than investing in the next generation. I love mentoring younger professionals – they are the future. I want my legacy as a leader to include providing value in work culture, but also in leaving a personal impact on the lives of professionals who will carry the workforce forward. Finding a position in life with a job and company that offers me a chance at all of that is what success looks like to me.
What advice would you give to your younger self just starting out in the industry?
I've always been a naturally curious person and it's easy for me to over-commit to projects that pique my interest. I've learned over years of practice how to manage that, so to my younger self I’d say… prioritize the things that are most important, and then become amazing at those things.