Analysis: Diversity among elite CMOs shows little sign of progress

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Several of the top-spending brands have never hired more than one female or non-white marketing boss, and some never have.

Executive search firm Spencer Stuart released its annual report tracking the average tenure of America’s chief marketing officers last month, and the results, per usual, made headlines: The average CMO lifespan continued to drop, this time from 44 to 42 months. "As you know, it is a tumultuous time to be a CMO," Greg Welch, a consultant in Spencer Stuart’s marketing officer practice, wrote in an email.

Less noticed was the study’s revelations about race and gender. Welch’s group has tracked the diversity of the nation’s top 100 CMOs since 2015, and the results suggest the ad industry’s infamous problem isn’t limited to agencies. While women advanced their numbers by 3 percent from the prior year, up to 23 percent, the number of non-white CMOs (classified as African American, Hispanic or Asian) dropped from 12 percent to just 9 percent.

"Gender and diversity are areas where considerable work needs to be done when it comes to recruiting top marketers," Welch wrote in the study. "The good news is that the best companies recognize this, with many of them putting appropriate structures in place to further develop the next generation of marketers who truly reflect today’s diverse marketplace."

That may be the case. But at the moment, CMO diversity among the nation’s top 10 advertisers is no better than the CMO population at large. According to a Campaign US analysis, only two of the top marketing jobs at these companies are currently held by white women, and just one is held by a non-white man.

Looking back further, it’s clear that progress in this area has been halting, at best.

At least seven of America’s largest 10 advertisers (based on the current Ad Age 200 Leading National Advertisers report)—Procter & Gamble (no. 1), AT&T (no. 2), Comcast (no. 4), Verizon (no. 5), Ford (no. 6), American Express (no. 7), and Samsung (no. 10)—have placed non-white men or females in their top marketing spots at least once in recent years, bucking the notion of a stagnant status quo.

But some companies haven’t accomplished even that minor feat.  

For example, even though a million more American women than men drive cars in the United States, not one of the top three car advertisers has yet placed a woman in the CMO role, and only one has ever hired a non-white CMO.

Fiat Chrysler (no. 8) has hired only white, male CMOs going back to Arthur "Bud" Liebler in 1989. The global CMO role at General Motors (no. 3), created in 2010, has been held by three white men in a row. Of Ford’s six most recent CMOs, all but one—Francisco Codina, who held the job from 2006 to 2007—were white men.

And few of the top 10 companies that have hired non-white or female CMOs have done so more than once. For example, America’s top marketer, Procter & Gamble, which spent $4.3 billion on advertising in 2015 according to AdAge, has had only one African-American man, and no women, in the top marketing position going back at least to the 1950s. (Ross Love, VP of advertising from 1987 to 1996, was the first and only non-white man to hold the job.)

Bucking the trend, however slightly, is AT&T, which has had two white, female CMOs back to back. And Verizon’s only CMO since it created the role in 2014 has been Diego Scotti. Prior to him, many of the company’s top marketers were female or non-white.  

Still, at a time when diversity has become one of the most urgent and public challenges facing the agency business in decades, the quiet dominance of white men among America’s most powerful advertisers brings new perspective to the depths of the problem. Collectively, the top-10 highest spending brands represented $29.3 billion in buying power in 2015, according to AdAge, and hold untold sway over their agency partners’ priorities. While agencies certainly bear responsibility for their own workforce, it’s hard to discount the influence of a demographically identical clientele.

"It is troubling that our industry is not consistently representing the communities it serves," said Antonio Lucio, CMO for HP, in an email. "I am proud to be one of the few Latinos to hold a CMO chair in the U.S., but clients need to lead."

Indeed, as several top brands (HP, General Mills and Verizon) are making demands that their agencies diversify, some industry leaders see the lack of CMO diversity as hypocritical.

"Brands should be held to the same standard as their agencies," said Nancy Hill, president and CEO of the Association of American Advertising Agencies.

It’s worth noting that all three of the brands that demanded agency diversification in the last year had people of color or women in the CMO role at the time: HP’s Lucio, Verizon’s Scotti and General Mills’ Ann Simonds, who departed the company in 2016. (General Mills has since dissolved the American CMO role, opting for a global position, which remains vacant.)

And the comparison of CMOs to agencies isn’t quite apples to apples. The CMO is a single position, and one that gained prominence only around 2005, according to Welch. (For this analysis, we considered a company’s top marketing position to be the CMO where one didn’t exist.) On the other hand, agencies are typically judged by the racial and gender makeup of their entire staff. It’s possible that an analysis of agency CEOs might render a picture every bit as homogenous.

As with agencies, the marketing ranks at many of these companies become more diverse the lower one looks. GM, despite never having a female marketing boss, employs CMOs for its individual brands. Among them are Buick’s Molly Peck, Opel/Vauxhall’s Tina Müller and OnStar’s COO Christine Sitek. At Fiat Chrysler, Deborah Wahl (now McDonald’s CMO) served as then-CMO Jim Press’s second-in-command from 2007 to 2008. (Spencer Stuart does not include these individual brand CMOs in its study, Welch noted.)

But why these women, or other diverse candidates, can’t seem to crack the top role is an open question—and worse, one that doesn’t seem to be asked very often. To wit: Nearly a month after the publication of the Spencer Stewart study, the issue has all but disappeared from the press, despite the continued drumbeat of stories about agency diversity.

With nearly $30 million in spending power, the country’s top 10 CMOs could influence far more than agency makeup were they to look more like the rest of 21st Century America. Greater diversity would lead to "much more informed marketing," said Jocelyn Carter-Miller, president of TechEdVentures and former CMO of Motorola and Office Depot. "By being able to speak to those particular cultures in nuanced ways, it would lead to greater economic gains."

For more advertisers to follow suit and diversify, "change has to be deliberate," Hill said. "We could be here all day talking about why CMOs aren’t more diverse," like the fact that executives hire those who look and think like them, prolonging the white, male majority, "so it has to be a conscious decision."

And it could be a profitable one, too, said Lucio. "Diversity is not only a values issue but a business imperative," he said. Lucio noted that 31 percent of U.S. businesses have no women in senior management, and of the women in senior management roles, only 11 percent are chief marketing officers. Additionally, women make up just over 46 percent of the advertising industry as whole but only 11 percent of creative directors, he said. All of this is against a backdrop in which 85 percent of all purchase decisions are made by women.

"Let’s face it," he continued. "Despite some very good intentions, there has been an ‘intention–action’ gap, and more work needs to be done."