Blog post

Is the CMO the CEO’s Heir Apparent?

By Jake Sorofman | August 06, 2014 | 4 Comments

digital marketing

A lot can be learned by observing the changing of the guard. Often, behind the dignified theater of it all is a much more chaotic reality. As power shifts, as the players are reshuffled, you can see the demands of the moment set in motion, priorities personified as new leaders become the faces of the future.

Of course, in the US, we see this every four years as presidential elections become a referendum on the mood of the moment. Whoever earns that seat of power has read this mood better than the next candidate, demonstrating that their skills, experience, judgment and vision match what we feel we need.

The same thing happens in corporate boardrooms. It’s a little like the dignified duck, calm and collected on the surface, but paddling like mad below the waterline. On the surface, the changing of the guard is all mahogany-trimmed decorum—but, below the line, there’s often something much grittier, perhaps more existential at stake.  

Which brings me to my point: What does the mood of the moment mean for the changing of the guard in the corporate world? Is the CMO the CEO’s likely heir apparent?

Let’s consider the candidates.

CIO—there is, of course, no doubt that IT is the dial tone for virtually every business today, providing a service we simply couldn’t function without. But the CIO will need to prove they can lead above the line. Also, while this candidate manages budgets and organizations, they’re rarely held to a P&L standard.

Outlook: Better odds in companies where information is the key asset and IT buyers are the key market.

CFO—perhaps nobody knows the mechanics and economics of the business better than the CFO, but this candidate will have to demonstrate an equal appreciation for products, markets and customers.

Outlook: Strong contender for companies with dialed-in, locked-down business models and largely operational challenges.

CRO—crass as it may sound, nothing is quite as important as the almighty deal. We’re sort of nowhere without the chief revenue officer. But while everyone appreciates a rainmaker, the CRO will have to prove they can see around corners, and beyond quarters. Scope of vision and ability to play the long game is this candidate’s case to make.

Outlook: Better odds in companies with traditional people-based selling models.

CDO—the chief digital officer is everyone’s favorite TLA* of the moment and certainly a candidate to watch in future contests. After all, this candidate lives at the intersection of technology and business, seeking to innovate how value is created and delivered for competitive advantage. Sounds promising, but CDOs are relatively few in numbers—and, while innovation is clearly key, business is also operational.

Outlook: All eyes on this one for future contests, but perhaps more of a curiosity on the main stage today.

CCO—Gartner reports that 77% of enterprises now have a chief customer officer as the senior-most arbiter of customer experience. As channels have proliferated and buying journeys have collapsed into winding walkabouts, it’s clearly a role we need. But can the CCO run a company? The jury is still out. Like the CDO, for many companies the role is relatively new and its definition is still coming into focus.  

Outlook: Better odds in retail and where the CCO has functional responsibility beyond an advisory role.

CMO—no longer seen as the promotional chief or chairman of arts and crafts, the chief marketing officer is now expected to drive strategic growth for the business. This candidate knows brands, products, markets and customers. Often, they’re expected to monetize engagement via digital commerce. The challenge for this candidate is proving they can run a predictable business. That begins, of course, with running marketing itself like a predictable business—not a house of cards and certainly not a hall of mirrors.

Outlook: Better than average, for sure, particularly where brand and customer engagement really count.

(*) Three-letter acronym

Comments are closed


  • Mike Corso says:

    Mix in a little startup experience and today’s CDO could be the invaluable visionary needed by all players.

  • Beth Torrie says:

    Establishing more connections between customer wants and goals and driving the strategy of the company is a great driver for success!

  • Josh Kivenko says:

    Good post Jake. We believe that CMO predictability starts with necessary discipline and transparency in marketing planning – the most under-innovated area of that function today.
    Survey after survey show that that planning practices are stuck in the stone age.
    Check out what I mean here:

  • Federico says:

    Regardless of the interpretation of the CMO role in comparison to other vital constituents of the hierarchy, corporations are now finally paying attention to client expetations and custormers journeys, instead of being the inward looking corporate organisms. Long live the CMO/CDO !!