Hiring the Right CMO

It has been called the most dangerous title in business and many pundits have suggested it does not work and should be banished. No role in the last fifteen years has been scrutinized and debated more than the Chief Marketing Officer. Businesses have struggled with the title and role since it was first coined not too long ago.

I remember working in Price Waterhouse’s Marketing and Customer Management practice when I first saw it referenced in the mid 1990’s. I think I danced a nerdy marketing jig. My excitement was shared by marketing practitioners who long thought our services were poorly understood, inaccurately recognized, and under valued.

The hope was this executive position would set the record straight and have uber impact within a business. What happened and continues to take place are huge assumptions and unrealistic expectations placed on the CMO that almost always result in disappointment. Of course, I have seen situations and models work but I have witnessed many more fail.

If you ‘Google’ “chief marketing officer” you will find abrupt departures like Woolworth’s and Nationwide’s CMOs. This has not stopped various industries from filling the role ranging from law firms to bookmakers to railroads to liquor brands. Recent CMO appointments include ones at Norfolk Southern Railroad, King & Spalding, Constellation Brands, Zoopla, Paddy Power, HSN, Discover Financial Services, and Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal.

I have watched and experienced the evolution of the CMO. The history of the role is one punctuated by issues that have hindered more than helped because they are symptoms rather than causes. These are:

  • A seat at the table. At the outset, what made the CMO appointment newsworthy was now the marketing function would be represented at the executive table. The CFO, head of sales, COO, head of HR, legal counsel all had to shift down a bit to make room for their new colleague. Unfortunately, few had impact or were given time to show themselves worthy so the chair was often yanked out from under them.
  • Two years or less. For the longest time, the CMO debate centered around tenure. Greg
    The New Complete Marketer illustration from Strategy + Business.

    The New Complete Marketer illustration from Strategy + Business.

    Welch at Spencer Stuart made his career reporting CMO tenure numbers and issues. The business media gleefully reported that most CMOs lasted less than two years. What they failed to recognize was that this is not enough time to do anything. The cycle was disruptive and unproductive and ended up further indicting the role. Many noticed that two years allowed just enough time for the CMO to fire the ad agency of record and hire a new one. So ad agencies tended to distrust the role.

  • It is not show business. Many of the first generation CMOs were accused of lacking substance. They were seen as showy, loud blowhards who over promised. There were also infringements on the CEO as who should be chief spokesperson. Then when it came to tangible performance, few could claim meaningful impact.
  • Cracks in the organizational chart. This new role and related marketing organization created friction as turf battles resulted. Org charts are notoriously inaccurate. They represent a rational, linear ideal state but never capture how an organization truly works. Big cracks appeared between marketing and sales along with product development and customer service. So often this riled the CEO to the point of cancelling the experiment and removing the CMO role.
  • Proving return on investment. A study in the Journal of Marketing that covered 167 companies including Procter & Gamble and Microsoft over a five-year period concluded that CMOs on top management teams don’t have any effect on a company’s financial performance. This was damning evidence.
  • We need a superman or woman. The latest debates involve the skillsets required to pull off the job. According to recent articles and job descriptions the CMO now must be a digital technologist, an analytics guru, a crazy creative, loyalty expert, customer service star while possessing an entrepreneurial work ethic and innovation mindset. Good luck in finding all in one.

The fact is, not all CMOs are created equal or will perform to expectations because there is enormous variability in their responsibilities and job descriptions. This variance exists because different models are appropriate for different types of companies at different stages of marketing orientation. This means it is like walking into a minefield. CMOs have only a small percentage of control over what will make them successful.

Not surprisingly, Spencer Stuart has found that the CMO’s job is a position that not many covet. A survey of 500 marketing executives found that 70% of respondents held long-term career goals of being general managers or CEOs but only 30% wanted to be CMO.

Having now held the role myself and consulted to CMOs, I offer up a new issue yet to be explored. This was crystallized for me in observing the dynamics between CMOs and their CEOs. Universally I have seen this to be a delicate relationship premised on hope but laced with skepticism. Without a doubt CMOs must be proactive, energetic, and positive forces for whatever their company offers and does. However, I see CMOs fail when they become cheerleaders for the brand.

When this takes place they lose objectivity and it is this objectivity that provides the value. CMOs need to advocate on behalf of the brand’s customers, understand the competitive set intimately, and know what is coming next in the category. In order to deliver on these three big tickets, they have to maintain a certain objectivity that borders on dispassion. They need to exhibit clarity and rationality rather than wave pompoms.

This does not mean they should be robotic Dr. Spocks. It is more akin to consultants that bring an objective viewpoint grounded in the knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of the business. This is the relevant discussion we should be having about the efficiency and efficacy of the CMO role. It takes a certain skillset to pull this off but, more importantly, it takes a certain personality.

Rise and Fall of the CMO illustration from Strategy + Business.

Rise and Fall of the CMO illustration from Strategy + Business.

Forrester Research reported that 70% of CMOs believe strategic thinking is the most important criterion for the success of a marketing executive. Left-brain skills, such as quantitative analysis and business acumen, also ranked high. Only 10% of CMOs identified creativity as the most crucial skill, ranking it last. This is all interesting but is not the core discussion. It is not right-brain left-brain, it is the balance between passion and dispassion.

An individual who represents this personae best is Jonathan Ives at Apple. First off, two things. I apologize for the reference to Apple. They tend to show up in any marketing article or presentation but I guess there is a reason for that. And second, I recognize that Mr. Ives is not the company’s CMO. That role is occupied by Phil Schiller. Yet, somehow, Ives seems like the

chief marketing guy because he marries consumer behavior, technology, product design, packaging and messaging so artfully. He represents the passion/dispassion equation beautifully. Ives has the skillset and the personality required.

In thinking about this what is now clear to me is the number one objective for any CMO regardless of role description, skills and personality. That is, CMOs exist to make the brand consistent inside and out. That is why a CMO must be bipolar by being passionate and dispassionate at the same time.

Recently, a CEO client grilled me on what it takes to make a CMO successful. I responded with the following:

  • Make the role clear. Most CMO job descriptions are long on duties and short on expectations.
  • Identify the person needed. Make sure skills and the personality get equal weight.
  • Fit to the culture and structure. We all talk about cultural fit but it is extremely important and cannot be ascertained by traditional hiring methods.
  • Give them authority. CMOs fail because they must touch so many aspects of the business but have little to no authority over them.
  • Mutually agree to the performance metrics. Every CMO I know wants to contribute to the business and is willing to put their butts on the line but these have to be realistic measures.

I also told the CEO to expect a bumpy ride, give it time, and be prepared for uncomfortable ambiguities. Most of all, I advised not to hire a vacuous cheerleader. Hire a sharp, creative person who would maintain their objectivity to advocate on behalf of the brand’s customers, understand the competitive set intimately, and know what is coming next in the category. This means the CMO would be coming back with extremely valuable but often uncomfortable insights and ideas. The CEO responded, “That is exactly what I would expect from my CMO.”

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