Are our expectations of marketers too high?

Campaign Savvy wordmark with headshot of Campaign US editor Alison Weissbrot

The average tenure of a Fortune 100 CMO remains too low to bring transformative change to companies.

As businesses adapt to unprecedented change, chief marketing officers are increasingly expected to be transformative change agents with the skill sets of Da Vinci-like unicorns.

Marketing leaders today require a perfect balance between left-brain and right-brain thinking. The CMO role demands a business-minded creative who understands technology and media. Being data-driven and analytical is critical, but so is emotion and big brand thinking.

How many people do you know like that?

The demands are causing even the most talented chief marketing officers, who can bring both halves of their brain to bear equally, to leave their jobs after increasingly shorter tenures.

Spencer Stuart’s annual CMO Tenure report, released last week, is always a good reminder of how much movement there is among top-tier marketing jobs. In 2021, average CMO tenure held steady at a whopping 40 months, less than three and a half years. There were plenty of examples of top marketers switching jobs, a phenomenon likely exacerbated by the pandemic and the Great Resignation.

“These jobs have never been more challenging,” Greg Welch, partner at Spencer Stuart, told me. “Technology changes, acquisitions, sprinkle in a pandemic and unrest and the fact is, CMOs are under the microscope.”

Welch said Spencer Stuart’s clients are starting to understand the juggling act it takes to be a successful CMO, and some are setting more realistic expectations — for instance, giving them a year to settle into the role, get to know leadership and infuse a marketing-first mindset into the company.

But high turnover means marketing chiefs, who are often flag bearers and change agents for important initiatives such as DE&I, sustainability and other areas of ESG, aren’t able to help companies execute on long-term agendas if they’re constantly chasing short-term goals to remain in their position. Most CMOs are unable to stay in their job long enough to make lasting change.

High CMO turnover is also part of the reason diversity among marketing chiefs in the Fortune 100 remains so low. Despite women outnumbering men in the CMO role for the first time ever at 51% last year, just 15% of CMOs came from diverse backgrounds, up from just 13% in 2020. Perhaps if CMOs — especially CMOs of color — were able to remain in their jobs longer, they could create real pathways for more diverse talent to rise to the top.

Short CMO tenures are also tumultuous for agencies, which always face the risk they’ll be put on the chopping block when new marketing leadership comes in. For instance, Burger King parted ways with longtime agency David one year after Fernando Machado left the CMO post, moving its creative account to OKRP. This has implications not only for the agency’s bottom line, but also for its employees, and exacerbates an already severe talent crisis in that industry.

Businesses are forced to meet short-term goals. But short-term thinking leads to short-term strategies, one-off ideas and ephemeral campaigns.

Marketers are increasingly expected to create movements with their brands — but miracles take time.

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