Why today’s CMO is tomorrow’s CEO

Being the CMO is an entirely holistic job. It’s a role that requires a deep understanding of the data, of the business on multiple levels, and how it runs. In fact, all of this makes being a CMO pretty good training for the future CEO.

The top marketing job now has the highest turnover rate among the entire C-suite – and it’s not just about turnover. Major companies have all seen CMOs leave—or ushered them out. But what explains these trends? And what skills do CMOs need today to be successful? Being the CMO is an entirely holistic job. It’s a role that requires a deep understanding of the data, of the business on multiple levels, and how it runs. In fact, all of this makes being a CMO pretty good training for the future CEO.

If you’re a marketer, you might think that becoming a CMO is the ultimate accomplishment, the thing that we are all striving for. It’s like playing soccer at your local club and dreaming of going to the World Cup.

By Daniel Incandela

But these days, being a CMO isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

If the rumors are true, there’s doom and gloom all around, and more showers are predicted. The top marketing job now has the highest turn-over rate among the entire C-suite, according to the Harvard Business Review. And every year the amount of time CMOs stay on gets shorter, with the Wall Street Journal reporting that the average tenure went from 44 months in 2017 to 43 in 2018.

This isn’t only about turn over. Just look at the headlines. Johnson & Johnson, Uber, and McDonald’s have all seen CMOs leave—or ushered them out. And here’s the stinger: their positions won’t be back-filled.

So what explains these trends, with CMOs staying in place for shorter and shorter periods, or even having their positions eliminated altogether?

The short answer is that marketing leaders are under increasing pressure to deliver…for the entire company. But what it means to deliver is constantly expanding. The CMOs who aren’t making the cut are the more traditional model, the ones who focus on marketing as its own limited discipline within the larger organization, who practice old school marketing and try to put their heads down and swim in the lane.

The fact is, marketing has extended its reach considerably. Its influence is strategic, touching every part of the organization. The effect of this is two-fold. On the one hand, the CMO role is extremely broad for any one person to be able to perform. To my mind, this simply points to the need for the CMO to hire smart, effective leaders under him or her to run marketing divisions. On the other hand, it highlights the need for a new type of CMO altogether. One who is an agent of change, partnering with every department, and executing on a vision for where the organization—and the business—need to go and how to get there. Today’s CMO isn’t swimming in a pool any more. It’s more about navigating the ocean. And these organization-wide challenges are exercises in steering the ship, or in other words, opportunities to train for the next big step: CEO.

Martech, Anyone?

One factor in all of this is a major swell in martech. The vast increase in customer data of all types has led to the development of new approaches to make use of it. On the one hand, new, intelligent, and adaptive technologies expand what it means to do marketing in the first place. User data can be leveraged to create personalized experiences, identity resolution allows companies to get an integrated view of user identities across multiple channels, and omnichannel marketing makes it possible to reach users in each of those places. With predictive analytics, marketers can identify and target ideal customer attributes, and data allows for focused, one on one campaigns. AI and machine learning will drive many of these approaches.

The rise of martech is why some enterprises now have the marketing technology team report up to the CIO. It also explains the increase of spend the CMO has at his or her disposal, and the expectation that that spend will produce results. According to Gartner, marketing expense budgets make up 11.2% of company revenue, with almost a third of that amount (29%) dedicated to martech in 2018.*

Managing the technology is a new area of responsibility that’s been added to the CMO’s already full plate. But there’s another outcome of the martech sprawl. Technologies like these also create the impression that marketing campaigns can be as surgical and carefully targeted as a scalpel, raising expectations of how brand and demand will perform. There’s also a perception that technology makes it possible to know precisely which approach is working best, and how to get the right results.

But let’s be honest here. Of course these are not the only factors affecting which marketing efforts are most effective and which aren’t. Economic pressures, changing consumer trends, what your competitors do, and many other outside influences drive outcomes. We operate in the market, after all, not in a vacuum. And we should be held accountable for understanding these forces, much as a CEO would. But we don’t have a crystal ball.

Getting How to Get ROI

As marketing grows in scope, so do costs. This leads (no pun intended) to increasing expectations that CMOs will justify the spend by delivering higher ROI numbers. But given the complexity of today’s marketing landscape, measuring ROI, not to mention boosting ROI, can be difficult in the best of cases. Think, if ROI is only measured in specific channels, if time frames for ROI are too short, or too long, the numbers might not be accurate and can again cloud the picture. So the CMO has to have a firm grasp on what to look for and how to measure it. Plus an understanding of what numbers mean, both from under a microscope and from 10,000 feet up, as well as what it means for tomorrow and the following quarter. Again, good training for the next career move.

What Today’s CMO Brings to the Table

To be successful, today’s CMO needs those skills, and also has to bring the art behind the science. It’s truly a left and right brain role. It’s part Don Draper and part HAL 9000. Think: building a competitive brand while hitting large pipeline targets. It is marketing’s job to serve and resource the entire company, as well as, our external audiences, shareholders, partners, prospects, and customers. And in our free time, we partner with other departments to help shape a winning, healthy culture. Being the CMO is an entirely holistic job, and that’s a big part of the reason it’s so rewarding.

This should be a point of pride for CMOs and all marketers. But it’s also a heck of a challenge, which explains in part why many CMOs don’t stay put. In the end, it’s a role that touches every part of an organization. It’s a role that requires a deep understanding of the data, of the business on multiple levels, and how it runs. And a creative mind to think outside the box and make it all work together.

This means being able to think strategically on a macro level. It means being able to align a lot of moving parts to that overall strategy, and fold in the concerns and needs of multiple stakeholders in a way that serves the organization as a whole. It means being both a pragmatist, living by the numbers and making the hard decisions, and a visionary, looking at the big picture to anticipate trends, foresee changes, and stay one move ahead.

All of which makes being a CMO pretty good training for becoming a future CEO.  Provided we keep our jobs in the interim.

Daniel Incandela is CMO at Conga. Incandela previously served as CMO at Return Path, and held leadership roles at ExactTarget and Salesforce Marketing Cloud.

This article originally appeared in MarTechAdvisor. Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash.

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