Contrary to popular belief, CMOs today enjoy unprecedented job security with tenure at historic highs. In fact, over the past year, the average CMO tenure reached the dizzying height of 3.5 years. That may not sound like much compared to the decade of service CEOs usually render, but it is the highest average since the executive search consulting firm Spencer Stuart began tracking CMO tenure in 2004. Back then, CMO tenure was only 1.8 years. While this is a positive trend for marketers, the role of the CMO is still the most volatile in the C-suite. As Spencer Stuart phrased it in a previous report, “NASCAR drivers beware. The role of today’s chief marketing officer (CMO) is fast becoming one of the riskiest jobs in North America.”
But it hasn’t been all good news for CMOs this summer. Another study published by the The Fournaise Marketing Group this month interviewed over 1,200 CEOs across North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. A whopping 80% of CEOs in this study say they are not impressed with and, further, do not understand or trust marketers. The CEOs’ main gripe is that marketers are disconnected from the financial side of the business. As with last year’s report, CEOs lament that unlike the CFO and the VP of Sales, CMOs “don’t think enough like business people: they focus too much on the creative, ‘arty’ and ‘fluffy’ side of marketing.” The report suggests that it’s time for CMOs to stop dwelling on soft issues like customer engagement and brand equity and start focusing on things that really matter like revenue, sales, and EBIT. In other words, think and act more like the CFO and sales people.
So after reading the report, I sat down to write this post about how CMOs could better connect with the CEO mindset and hopefully avoid the ax long enough to actually accomplish something. But the more I thought about it, the more it became clear that the CMOs aren’t necessarily the problem in this equation. And while CMOs surely need to be fiscally accountable and get better at explaining what they do for a living, the last person they should look to emulate is their CEO. In fact, I’d say it’s time that more CEOs started adapting to their CMO’s worldview.
The CEO as a stern, steely-eyed, iron-fisted, left-brained, cigar-chomping, bean-counting proclaimer of edicts and relentless guardian of the bottom line is a sepia-toned relic of the 1800s. But despite a softening of the CEO character over the years, this CEO archetype persists today and, I suspect, still plays a significant role in CEO selection. The problem is that this type of character is at odds with today’s business reality.
You can invent ingenious products and manufacture them with great efficiencies, but if you can’t market them, then you’re just an R&D lab and/or factory. And that’s the type of organization that most CEOs seem best suited to lead.
Want proof? Just ask yourself: How often have you heard that CEOs just don’t understand marketing or branding? How often have you experienced this yourself? Philip Kotler once characterized all CEOs thusly: “There are two types of CEOs: those who know that they don’t understand marketing and those who don’t know that they don’t understand marketing.” Well put, Professor. On LinkedIn this week, I saw an astute reply to the question “How many CEOs understand marketing?” Veteran marketer Drayton Bird answered, “In 50-odd years in this business I have met very, very few CEOs who understood marketing - even vaguely. The exceptions are the most successful - e.g Branson, Lou Gerstner of American Express and IBM, Steve Jobs. Many do well because they have a great product. E.g. Ballmer of Microsoft. Equally I have met very few marketing bosses who understood business, advertising or sales - one reason they have such a brief shelf life: the other being that the CEOs who hire them have no clue about marketing. Circular, really.” I haven’t been at this as long as Drayton, but I can count the number of CEOs I’ve worked with who know marketing on one hand and the number that know they don’t know on the other with enough fingers left over to text “WTH” on my iPhone while doing the math.
At the same time, we hear ad nauseam that for a company to compete today it needs a marketing focus and strong brands. Isn’t it absurd that the people put in charge of these companies don’t understand these issues “even vaguely”? I can accept that CMOs may not be as financially vigilant as their fellow chiefs, but most CMOs I’ve met are, at least, capable of a vague understanding of profit and loss. How can a CEO lead a marketing organization and create strong brands when most don’t have a clue as to the mechanics behind either one? One way is to periodically blame the CMO for lack of results in these areas and fire him.
Thankfully, we have a new CEO archetype emerging. When the topic of brand-focused marketing companies comes up the usual examples are cited: Apple, Nike, Virgin, Body Shop. But CEOs like Steve Jobs, Mark Parker, Richard Branson, or Anita Roddick certainly don’t fit the sepia-toned CEO mold. These CEOs are characterized by creativity, communication, and vision bordering on obsession. They are/were passionate souls who inspire us and seem to be less focused on the money as they are on the customers they serve. In short, they bare considerably more resemblance to today’s oft-chided CMO archetype then to her boss, the revered CEO archetype.
The Fournaise’s studies suggest that CMOs need to change their right-brained ways to be more like the left-brained CEOs they serve. But from what I’m reading in these reports, I think the authors got it backwards. Instead of CMOs becoming better at finance and administration, I’d say the CEOs need to become better at marketing and building brand equity. I agree with Bryan Thomas’ opinion that successful CMOs need to be “’whole-brain’ thinkers rather than focused on the right (creative) or left (analytical) parts of their brain.” Who knows? If boards become more aware of the value generated by proper marketing and branding, then we may see another dip in CMO tenure as they are rapidly promoted to replace their outmoded CEOs.
For more on the future of the CMO, see: The Rise of the ROI Marketer.
Sean Duffy is a founder of Duffy Agency, the digital marketing agency for aspiring international brands. Sean has over 25 years of experience working with strategic marketing in Boston, San Francisco, Stockholm, and Copenhagen. In addition to his involvement with Duffy Agency, Sean is a frequent speaker on strategic international marketing and online brand management. He serves also as Lecturer and Practitioner in Residence at the Lund University School of Economics & Management and as Mentor in their Masters Program in Entrepreneurship. Sean is an active member of TAAN Worldwide where he has served two terms as the European Governor. He is also a speaker, blogger, Twitterer, and is on LinkedIn. With offices in Malmö and Boston, Sean splits his time between Sweden and the States.
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