A CMO in the Covid era needs to be a modern renaissance thinker

The current crisis has made the marketer's role even more complex, at the crossroads of art and science.

Artists. Inventors. Growth hackers. Data punks. The renaissance thinkers of our complex times. These will be the successful marketers of a new world order.

Why is that? In the global battle against the pandemic, society, economy and politics are all at a delicate transition point. While companies respond and react for short-term survival, we need to best prepare for the long term as the world reopens and restarts – doing so with a relentless focus on purpose, technology and experience.

The evolving role of the CMO

The current crisis has made the role of the chief marketing officer even more complex than it already was, sitting at the crossroads of art and science. 

Having spent many years as a client earlier in my career, this is one debate I have seen swell, especially in the past two decades of the digital era. 

Marketing continues to undergo a fundamental, generational shift, both in how it defines itself and what is expected of it. 

The Covid-19 crisis has accelerated all marketing transformation demands. Everything feels different from what we had known at the start of the year, and the future for brands, marketers and their agencies looks very different. 

Consumer behaviours are changing every day, new business opportunities are being discovered, and figuring out which changes are temporary and which are permanent will require us to learn and respond faster than ever.  

Enter, the “modern renaissance” marketers – marketers who expand and (re)interpret the marketing discipline, while creating their own style of art and scientific inquiry into brand meaning, and ask: "What do you stand for and what do you deliver?"

There are three dimensions to the growth of marketing as a true leadership function that can help steer businesses through adversity: purpose (how the brand and business acts, not manifesto ads); technology (not just data); and "experience creativity" (not just advertising).


Fancy fonts on a wall relaying a company’s mantra is not purpose. It’s thinking beyond creativity, because, after all, what a brand says is less important than what it actually does. 

Consider these examples. LVMH, followed by many others, re-purposed its fragrance manufacturing to produce hand sanitisers. Beiersdorf ramped up its production of medical-grade disinfectants. McDonald’s in Germany lent its workforce to Aldi, which was short on staff, to help refill the shelves faster. EE extended its support for NHS workers, offering them unlimited data until October. 

From Tesco to Boots to Morrisons, retailers shifted admirably during this crisis – from shielding the elderly or vulnerable customers to looking after their own staff and dealing with massive demand and supply shortages.

Consumers want to know that brands care about their employees and their communities, and they want to see proof. Brands will have to continue to care about consumer values and communicate that well to compete in the future, embracing a new spirit of collective mobilisation and action. 


Let’s talk digital transformation. For most businesses, it’s been discretionary. In this year of both economic and human havoc, when workforces and consumers have all been pushed online at an unprecedented pace, CMOs have to figure out the new digital reality — one in which tech and people combine their unique strengths to enable remote production and flexible work solutions. 

Businesses will need to invest in data to detect emerging trends, look at crisis-induced, short-term changes and more permanent shifts, all the while experimenting with new business models.

To be a marketer, is not to be expert in everything about data and technology. 

It’s about being the artist, the inventor and the growth hacker that can recognise the experts in those respective areas, because marketers have so much knowledge in other areas that do touch customers, such as delivery channels, product promotion and experience.

The modern CMO is the conductor. They don’t need to know how to play every instrument. Instead they play the orchestra. 

Experience creativity

As an industry, we only sometimes talk about acts, not ads. Experience creativity, however, is about getting under the skin of communications to understand that what we are selling is not just products, but business solutions. 

It’s about CMOs who can craft marketing experiences that can adapt and be resilient. 

In other words, is marketing improving the things around us and affecting change to instil positive consumer action or is it just another ad?

Remember, bad CMOs run a cost line, a mere expense that they are doomed to defend. 

Good ones, on the other hand, have worked out their purpose, data and tech capabilities and investments. They are the modern renaissance thinkers whose worlds are not restrained to costs. 

They are the ones who know marketing remains a powerful means of creating value, and they prove it to their business.

Justin Billingsley is chief marketing officer of Publicis Groupe

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