Sympathy for the CMO

Marketing chiefs' top concerns for 2020--and beyond.

There’s a certain irony in the reality that the modern chief marketing officer is both heralded as the real wielder of power in the C suite at the same time as the tenure of the position seems to get shorter and shorter. Both realities have something to do with the fact that the top marketing position at a number of companies takes on more responsibilities all the time—from the obvious brand and product marketing tasks to data, analytics, sales support and even tech. For a brief while, there was even talk of a new position in the C-suite: the CMTO, encompassing marketing and tech, given the growing impact of technology on the marketing discipline.  

In my position running a major executive search firm, I speak to CMOs all the time, at varying points in their careers. Some are in their current posts but looking to reach the next rung on their career ladder, while others have unceremoniously lost their position as a result of the vagaries of the job.

I’m learning so much about how these new pressures are creating different realities for them as they look to take companies to the next level of success—which often means balancing the need to generate revenue results while also keeping a careful eye on team structure and budgets.

These are the top concerns I’ve been hearing from many of these CMOs, along with some thoughts on how to tackle each challenge.

Is my team strong enough to drive results fast enough?

New CMOs often inherit a lot of legacy hires, some who don’t know the difference between a sales force and Salesforce. That reality leads the CMO to question: Is my team capable of delivering on my vision? Can I change up the team fast enough before my boss switches me out?

For starters, going into a new job, CMOs today need a strong martech stack to deliver efficient and smarter marketing programs, yet they are often encumbered with teams who are not designed to fit the challenge or ready to embrace the future. 

Before starting a new role, many CMOs are using capabilities and talent assessment tools to help identify the gaps in skillsets so they know where they will need to shore up once they start.  And to determine more quickly who stays and who might need changing out. 

When will the marketing budget scalpel come?

Once CMOs are in the job for a bit of time, it’s easy to start wondering when the marketing budget will get cut—it’s usually not a question of if, it’s when. This is a vital concern for the modern CMO, given that they’re essentially the new CROs, particularly those working for public companies that must satisfy Wall Street’s need to see constant revenue growth quarter after quarter (or suffer punishing stock drops). The day will come when you will have to do more with less.

It’s best to draft a few scenarios for your marketing team when the cuts are implemented, so you’re not caught flat-footed. How lean can your staff be before you can no longer execute effectively? Try to figure out your most multi-talented utility players. (Some of those talent assessment tools will come in handy to create that short-list of essential personnel.)

How long do I have to get the job done?

Beyond knowing that a CMO’s budget is always facing cuts, virtually every marketing head I know wonders how long they have to reach the goals set out when they take the job. In other words, when does your boss trade in the scalpel for the guillotine? It’s no secret the average tenure of a CMO has dropped to just under four years, which leads to greater need to deliver those results faster. Granted, many if not most are under contract, which guarantees their tenure (or at least compensation) for a period of time. But the CMOs I know want to know they’ve left their mark on the company they believe in—why else would they have taken the job?  

Not to state the obvious, but every CMO needs to be under contract. Also, be clear about the goals set before you so there’s no room for misinterpretation. Finally, make decisions fast—she who hesitates is lost, as the saying goes.

It’s hard to remember a time when the CMO was just the person who signed off on which agency to use, then headed out to that three-martini lunch. We are living in far more challenging times, but times that can easily lead to the successful CMO to be his or her company’s next CEO.

Claire Telling is CEO of Grace Blue Americas.

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