3 top CMOs lay out what their role means in today's advertising world

Deloitte CMO Diana O’Brien has been with the company for more than two decades
Deloitte CMO Diana O’Brien has been with the company for more than two decades

Head marketers from General Motors, Deloitte and Insider say being a CMO is nothing like how they thought it would be.

The future of our chief marketing officers is a headline that’s been dominating advertising trade press for years now. 

A huge question mark is hanging over the role, with many renaming it and others doing away with the title altogether. 

But it appears the industry is finally feeling at ease with itself, because the majority agree on one thing: it’s a pinnacle role in any marketing division, regardless of what it’s called. 

"Because I didn’t have it, I can tell you that it doesn’t come with the idea of ‘chief,’" said Deloitte CMO Diana O’Brien, who’s been with the company 25 years, well before its C-suite was blessed with the title and role. 

"It has to do with the idea that you are a member of a team that has to see themselves responsible for everything to do with the business. It’s not just talking about marketing -- that’s not sufficient -- you have to be able to connect the insights you have with the issues that the CFOs have, and risk officer has, and what the CEO wants to accomplish. It’s not about being a chief, it’s about being a collaborator. 

"You need to contribute to the rest of the team. I didn’t think it would work that way -- I thought I’d operate in my silo and I’d bring the value that was needed and all would be well and good and it just doesn’t work like that. So you have to feel responsible for everything. You are part of an elite team driving that business."

O’Brien shared her two cents at CES in Las Vegas on Monday as part of a discussion titled "Putting the ‘C’ in CMO." She shared the stage with Jenifer Berman, CMO at Insider, and General Motors CMO Deborah Wahl. 

Wahl, who recently joined GM after enjoying a stint at Cadillac and, before that, spending three years as CMO of McDonald's USA, sees her role as "contributing marketing officer" more than anything.

She explained: "You’re building your career all these years and you think, ‘finally, I’ll get to be the chief,’ and when you get to it, it’s completely the opposite. I’m spending more time on the phone and talking to people than doing these other things that I thought being a leader was all about.

"It’s changed. It’s not ‘chief marketing officer,’ it’s ‘contributing marketing officer.’ It’s inspiring growth, it’s inspiring disruption, it’s inspiring the pace to create a lot more value. 

Berman agreed, describing the value a CMO role brought when breaking down silos within the Insider business to spark growth.

She added: "What was interesting for me when I started at Insider three years ago is that we didn’t have a marketer. We had grown incredibly quickly because we were siloed, so we were hyper-focused on various business units that allowed us to be aggressive -- we’re now the third largest general news brand in the U.S. and you do that just by really focusing on specifics things. 

"But what that meant is that we didn’t have a mission, various parts of the organization did not know what other parts were doing -- there was no north star guiding what we were doing and nor was there something knitting us together and breaking those silos down. 

"When we went through the strategic process about building the brand it was as much about educating external audiences as it was internal."

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