Perspectives

Redefining the modern CMO

How to reboot the role to meet growing expectations

​In the three decades since it earned a place in the C-suite, marketing has changed fundamentally: The relationship between marketers and agencies has evolved, technology has empowered consumers, and social media has sparked new channels for winning and losing customers. All of which begs the question, is it time to redefine the CMO role itself?

Early explorations

The middle of the 19th century marked the dawn of the “physician scientist.” But new ideas weren’t always welcomed, as Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis learned when he declared: “Wash your hands.” Semmelweis had been charged with analyzing the practices of two maternity wards, one managed by physicians, the other by midwives. He noticed a disturbing trend: The mortality rate of mothers in the physician-run ward was five times higher. After testing a number of hypotheses, Semmelweis came to a now obvious conclusion that the main reason was that physicians regularly conducted autopsies before overseeing deliveries—without first washing their hands.

Marketing isn’t a matter of life or death, at least not literally. But chief marketing officers are central to success or failure of organizations, and here’s where the parallels with Semmelweis resonate. Just as he couldn’t explain why washing hands mattered, CMOs often struggle to explain the linkage between marketing activities and financial performance. Just as Semmelweis had the important task of analyzing physician practices but lacked the authority to enforce policy, CMOs often sit at the executive table without the strategic empowerment their position demands. And just as Semmelweis didn’t know how to build support among colleagues, many CMOs struggle to establish the kind of interdepartmental collaborations that can allow them to expand their influence—and value—beyond the marketing organization.

So why are many CMOs struggling? It’s instructive to remember that in corporate terms, the CMO position is relatively new, really only emerging as a C-suite position in the 1980s. In the three decades since, marketing has fundamentally altered: Among other things, the relationship between marketers and agencies has evolved, technology has empowered consumers with more information at their disposal than ever, and the emergence of social media has sparked new channels for informing, winning, and losing customers (and reputations). All of which begs the question: If everything that defines marketing has changed, is it time to redefine the CMO role itself?

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A mismatch between expectations and reality

The good news is that many organizations see the need for CMOs to have an enterprise-wide role, less focused on pure tactics. One reason is the growing realization that empowered by the information age, consumers are steadily gaining more power in the consumer-business relationship. For many organizations, push marketing is no longer sufficient. Instead, organizations are seeking out ways to engage customers with messaging that better speaks to their needs and values, establishing an ongoing relationship rather than a transactional one.

There’s likely no one better placed to lead this customer-centric charge than the CMO. And many marketers are stepping up: A recent study by the CMO Council and Deloitte found that, over the past decade, CMOs have been increasingly asked to elevate their activities from brand and marketing plan management to acting as an enterprise-wide revenue driver that taps into the hearts and minds of their customers.

But as with the early physician scientist, this new set of expectations can come with its share of ambiguity. While more CMOs are invited to have a seat at the strategic table, many are struggling to have their voices heard. To investigate why—and to identify ways CMOs might be able to empower themselves—we conducted over 40 structured interviews with a variety of C-suite executives, both within and outside the CMO role.

We found the CMO paradox largely intact: CMOs are expected to play an enterprise-minded role in organizations but often don’t have the authority and responsibility to be effective. Fully half of our interviewees said having an enterprise-wide mindset was one of the most important factors in a CMO’s success. Yet a far smaller proportion thought it was important for CMOs to have a voice in company growth initiatives, own a significant role in budgeting and strategic planning, or be part of a customer-centric company–all factors that typically come with having an enterprise-wide mindset (figure 1). Instead, many CMOs seem relegated to more tactical areas. While more than 40 percent of CMOs in our study said they were working on brand shaping and campaign execution activities, our study found only 6 percent of CMOs said they were actively working on growing revenue across all global business activities, while more than 40 percent were working on brand shaping and campaign execution activities.

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If the customer sits at the center of the organization, then so should marketing—in fact as well as in expectation.

Helping CMOs help themselves

Our findings underlined the potential need for the CMO to be redefined. After all, they made it clear that most senior executives themselves see the need for CMOs to adopt an enterprise-wide mindset and role. Yet actually making that change can be hard, and we believe it’s a two-step process. First, CMOs should leverage the resources they have to make key changes in the way they interact with other functions (and with the CEO) that can deliver tangible results. This, in turn, will help bolster their case for more authority, responsibility, and resources to consolidate their position and help them execute even more effectively.

Where should CMOs start? Based on our research, three areas stand out:

  1. Relentlessly pursue customer expertise. By positioning themselves as customer experts—and bringing the benefits of that expertise to other functions in the organization—CMOs can trade tactical responsibilities for enterprise-wide strategic influence.
  2. Make marketing make sense. CMOs can make their voice heard by translating marketing insights into the language of their C-suite peers, be it financial, strategic, sales-oriented, or talent-related.
  3. Establish a “center brain” mentality. Much has been said about the increasing need for strong data-analytics capabilities in marketing, and rightly so. Yet this should not tempt CMOs to undervalue the creative, right brain skills that marketers have more traditionally valued. Only by marrying the two can CMOs bring insight and actionable guidance to organizations, and it requires a forward-thinking, strategic mindset.

Relentlessly pursue customer expertise – 
“The most critical capability of the CMO is to have a profound, deep understanding of customers and their needs and know how to engage with and serve them. This, of course, involves knowledge of data and analytics.”

– Jamie Moldafsky, CMO, Wells Fargo

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Companies that outperform the competition have ideals that power their growth and provide incubation from temporary setbacks in their brand equity.

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