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Dr Ilse Smuts' Journey to Redefining Marketing Leadership

Standing tall as an inspirational symbol of remarkability is our esteemed doctoral alumna, Dr Ilse Smuts. With a wealth of experience in marketing within the banking fraternity, Dr Smuts personifies the convergence of academia and industry expertise. Today, we showcase her transformative journey.

In retracing her career development and educational background in marketing and beyond, upon reflection, Dr Ilse Smuts recollects that, following a period of “18 months in the role of Advertising Representative in the Student Development Department at the University of Pretoria, where I worked while I studied BCom (Hons) in Marketing Management, I accepted a role in banking [FNB South Africa] in 1998”, she says, joining “as a Marketing Assistant. [Thereafter, I] embarked on finishing an MCom in Marketing Management (UP) and was promoted to Marketing Manager, where I learned a lot from the local and international companies we partnered with... In 2008 I was awarded the Sunday Times (Business Times) Marketing Excellence Award as Rising Star of the Year. During my time as part of the company’s marketing fraternity, we worked with countless advertising, media, events and PR agencies to position and promote our brand and value propositions. It was always such a kick to see advertising material in public, especially as one was closely involved in its creation. In 2020, I was granted an opportunity to spread my wings beyond marketing – as Product Growth Head, Lifestage Segments, Retail Cash Investments at FNB South Africa. I’m very pleased to see the market response to our deepened focus on our clients aged 60+. While we have celebrated achieving significant milestones and launching fantastic value propositions, there is still a lot of opportunity for the organisation to cement or increase its leading market share position in all the life-stage segments it serves.”

It is most probably the case that Dr Smuts’ foundational experiences in marketing studies and her professional journey in the banking sector naturally shaped her doctoral studies and guided her thesis, thereby contributing to the development of her comprehensive outlook. In fact, Dr Smuts is of the view that the South African financial services industry holds a relatively high ranking in global competitiveness reports, yet operates in the realities of an emerging market, meaning retail banks are not immune to the changes required to remain successful. Marketing leadership, as customer custodians, can play a vital role by directing their key internal stakeholders’ alignment to evolving customer centricity. Thus, Dr Smuts’ thesis, entitled: “Exploring the Role of Marketing Leadership in Directing Key Internal Stakeholder Alignment with Evolving Customer Centricity: The Case of a South African Retail Bank”, as a case study design conducted in a major bank with a national footprint and various international subsidiaries in broader Africa and beyond, explored the potential broadening of the role of marketing leadership in the studied context.

Findings included that marketing leadership could broaden their role to include the direction of key internal stakeholders’ alignment to evolving customer centricity, that they must have a clear vision for customer centricity and be able to articulate it to their stakeholders, to ensure all are aligned on the vision for customer centricity and their roles in achieving it. It is important for marketing leadership to measure the impact of customer centricity initiatives. The study then concludes that by broadening the role of marketing leadership to include the direction of key internal stakeholder alignment to evolving customer centricity, marketing leadership can play a critical role in improving overall customer centricity. A conceptual framework created to depict this broader role that the bank’s marketing leadership could play was an added contribution to the body of knowledge. Recommendations for future research include conducting more related studies in the region, to advance the discourse.

Conventional wisdom holds that embarking on a meaningful journey involves not only pushing the body to its limits but also exploring the frontiers of the mind. Dr Smuts has truly exemplified this notion, as her determination, focus, and perseverance ensured her triumphant emergence on this educational path. In her own words: “It was tough, but when I look back on the journey, I’m filled with gratitude to the many selfless people who provided guidance and support along the way to achieving this life goal. My critical thinking was sharpened even further. When you think you can’t anymore, you’re wrong – just take a break and pick up where you left off. I now believe, even more than before, where there is a will, there is a way.”

Next on her remarkable journey, says Dr Smuts, is the pursuit of greater balance. She plans to travel the world, spend quality time with friends and family, and focus on her career, aiming to glean insights from diverse places, people, and professional opportunities.

We allow hers to be the last – as she advises: “Ensure you have a solid support network. Delimit your study as much as possible. To have any chance of completing the degree, you will need to work hard and make significant sacrifices, even when you don’t always feel like it.”


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