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CMOs must adapt to modern business (and marketing)

By Marc Brown | April 24, 2018 | 5 Comments

MarketingMarketing Strategy and Innovation

It’s interesting for me to think about today’s CMO.  CMOs are under attack, in transition, being re-imagined, and more. Company tenure, knowledge, or industry experience doesn’t guarantee you a longstanding job…proving your value does. But what does this mean and who do you need to prove your worth to?

Several recently published studies show CMO turnover is higher than ever. In some industries, the trend is eye-popping – particularly in retail and high tech. Even more challenging, outsiders are in and insiders are out. While CMO turnover has been rising for years, many studies show 60% or more of companies replace their CMOs with someone from outside the company, even if it means hiring a CMO with little to no experience in the industry.

What the hell is going on?

(Source: Aaron Burden on Unsplash)

(Source: Aaron Burden on Unsplash)

It’s simply a matter of business need and evolution. CEOs are increasingly responding to shifting business dynamics that call for an entirely new skill set from CMOs, they say, and an equal aptitude in customer experience, data analytics, sales knowledge, and traditional brand-building skills. Indirectly, this is also a clear indicator that many CEOs don’t believe that other internal marketing leaders have the answers either.

But it’s not that easy to meet today’s business needs. “Marketing has become a series of highly specialized subdisciplines, and the days of being a generalist are almost gone,” says Richard Sanderson, co-leader of the marketing officers practice at Russell Reynolds. CMOs and marketing leaders must be more aggressive in their partnering efforts, working hand in hand with finance, sales and the executive team to showcase marketing’s unique knowledge and business value.

To succeed, CMOs will need to excel in 4 strategic areas: business alignment and results, customer engagement and satisfaction, data analytics and optimization, and sales efficiency and execution.

Foster strong alliances with key stakeholders. CMOs who thrive in 2018 will be the ones who can adopt the mindset of the CEO, head of sales (or CRO), and CFO. They will understand the goals and challenges, where marketing fits and what is being delivered, and help solve core business issues. Balancing business operations, creative, and sales-driven thinking should be top-of-mind for CMOs proving quantified business value.

Measure, analyze, and prioritize the ‘right’ data. Most CMOs have access to a lot of data, and it’s common to get lost in it. Successful CMOs in 2018 will shift focus away from low-level metrics, placing their focus on those key business performance indicators that directly measure business performance, such as revenue, CX, engagement, and readiness.

Bottom line, 2018 will be the year that CMOs need to step up to demonstrate indisputable value. CMOs who re-imagine their role around growth and business impact will leave the year stronger than ever before, with measures and results that resonate with the C-suite and the Board. To learn more, check out ‘CMO Perspective: Key Traits of Growth-Oriented CMOs‘ (Gartner subscription required.).

For the many CMOs in transition – moving to a new job, dealing with a new CEO, or going through M&A – I’d love to hear your thoughts on what the biggest challenge for you has been.

Leave a Comment


  • pro4people says:

    Dealing with a new CEO is a lottery, so this one is, in my opinion, the biggest challenge. It’s usually hard to predict how a new person will be working with new responsibilities and a new team so there is a great need in being flexible, which tend to get pretty difficult sometimes:)

  • Perhaps a CMO doesn’t need to be multifaceted in some industries, but in the Tech sector you really need people who are proven Digital Polymaths. The challenge, however, is that the talent puddle is insufficient to fulfill the apparent demand. Also, many CEOs hire people who know how to outsource work to agencies, but are otherwise incapable of providing meaningful leadership to a marketing organization. So, blame the poor hiring practices for the high turnover in CMOs. Few candidates have the depth and breadth of skills that’s needed to be successful. CEOs should ask probing interview questions about skills and real experience to weed-out the more obvious under-performers.

    • Marc Brown says:

      David, do you see the issue as incomplete job description understanding? Basically, CMO roles are evolving and maybe not fully understood by those searching for one? I do agree that with more business and sales expectations placed on marketing, the CMO skill set is broadening quickly. Personally, I am not sure its a hiring practice issue, but rather the degree of alignment with the CEO on the definition of the role itself, the priorities of the business, and the CMOs scope of responsibility.

  • Marc, the issues that I’ve witnessed doesn’t stem from job descriptions or expanded roles and responsibilities. I suspect that CEOs (and their advisors) don’t know how to validate a candidate’s ‘claimed’ skills, experience and accomplishments. The person that the CEO thinks they’re hiring turns out not to fit the preferred profile, once they’re acting in that role.

    It takes ~6+ months for the CMO to be fully and fairly assessed, and then once the CEO determines that they have a problem, then they’ll work towards a decision — find a way to enable the CMO to be successful (highly unlikely), or start the process of moving toward a search for the replacement (more likely).

    That said, I’ve seen floundering CMOs stay in their new role for a year or two after the initial observation that they deemed not to be a fit. Why does this happen? CEOs are reluctant to act quickly, due to the concern that they (personally) would appear at fault. Ironically, if the CEO asked for candid assessments during the interview process, savvy advisors could help to weed-out the under-qualified candidates.

    My point: this predictable determination of qualification incompatibility can be apparent to those who are multifaceted, and don’t rely upon agencies to perform all the real marketing work. But you are right, the bar of expectations can also be so high that the CMO is overwhelmed.

  • As a B2B technology professional for my entire career, I started in sales and then switched to marketing. In a large ticket size industry like B2B technology, sales experience is absolutely mandatory for CMO. I’ve been amazed at the number of CMOs in the industry who have no sales background. And I’m glad that’s changing now. It’s good to know that sales orientation has now become a survival skill for CMOs.