Want a More Influential CMO Position? Step Up Today

Blog Post
October 12, 2017

Mohanbir Sawhney and Robert C. Wolcott recently published a piece on marketingjournal.org called A New Charter for Chief Marketing Officers which explains the need for CMOs to have a broader, more strategic role with more influence in the C-suite.  It outlines key areas that CMOs should be in charge of to be a "Heavyweight CMO," such as owning customer insights and innovation, the development of marketing talent, protecting the corporate brand, stakeholder engagement, customer experience, etc.

As a CEO, I wholeheartedly agree with Sawhney and Wolcott and embraced this idea a long time ago. When I led CenturyLink, we were able to grow through numerous successful acquisitions of companies larger than our own. This was partly possible because we could outperform these larger companies—because we were very focused on marketing. I do not just mean brand marketing; our focus on the marketing organization included developing the go to market strategy, driving acquisition and retention and ultimately driving top line revenue.

We're currently living this at Harte Hanks. Marketing is driving our change to become a more competitive, customer-driven company. Insights from The Boutique—our version of a daily marketing war room—are fueling everything from segmentation to our content development and our technology choices. Marketing owns it’s on technology stack. We have cut our sales team—which also reports to Frank Grillo, CMO—by 75%, and we're still producing the same, if not more sales because marketing is driving better opportunities to business development. Marketing is also producing amazing thought leadership, which has an impact on how our prospects and clients view us, and our customer satisfaction has improved as we optimize our customer experience (also owned by marketing). 

Providing CMOs with a broader charter and more influence in the C-suite brings more cohesive opportunity to the company in terms of revenue growth and retention. In this modern world, you cannot have a siloed approach to your business. You cannot have engineering off doing its own thing independent of customer insights, for example, or IT driving its own agenda independent of the customer experience. A strategic CMO role that has authority over these areas prevents this from happening and allows organizations to align more closely around a growth strategy and the successful execution of that strategy. A brand's probability of successful execution of its strategic initiatives should improve significantly with this cohesive approach and drive from the executive level.

However, there are some barriers to getting CMOs into these broad, strategic roles.

Some CEOs and other C-suite executives do not fully understand the world of "modern marketing" and what has changed in the marketing function over the years. They don't appreciate the potential that marketing offers the business. Additionally, many large corporations are heavily siloed with a lot of bureaucracy and entrenched politics. This is a big barrier to change, and if they're not already organized with marketing in a strategic, central role—as the engine of the company—how do they get the rest of the company to align to this new vision? Many executives would consider this change to hold more risk than benefit.

I would ask these executives to look around at their peer companies. More and more, successful businesses are using client insights to bring differentiated capabilities to the market. They're using agile development that integrates customer feedback throughout product development—even Silicon Valley has adopted this approach that enables them to adjust on the fly as customer insights evolve. This is a big change in IT and engineering that's made possible with the CMO as strategic owner of customer insights.

There was a time when the board's focus was more on security executive talent in technology and security. Now, however, they're realizing that they need a digitally savvy CMO to own these customer insights—among other things—and to be in the board room to help guide business strategy and the decisions the corporation must make. 

CMOs must also be sufficiently prepared to step into a more strategic, influential position—not all are.

Sawhney and Wolcott say, “It is time for CMOs across industries to leave the confines of narrowly defined communications roles and to take on greater strategic responsibility.” Yes, this is true. But as Kim Whitler, Assistant Professor, University of Virginia, Darden School of Business, argues, not all CMOs have the appropriate experience to do so successfully. She explains:

"Not all CMOs have the same training, skill, expertise, and competency. Some CMOs started in consulting and have had predominantly backgrounds that focus on engineering solutions to problems. Other CMOs have worked predominantly on the selling or commercialization side of marketing, focusing on promoting, through traditional and contemporary vehicles, a company’s products or services. And some CMOs have primarily a General Management background, responsible for the P&L of the business. As you can imagine, if one CMO doesn’t have training, experience, and skill in setting strategy, then they wouldn’t be prepared or equipped to step into a strategy role."

I agree, and I believe there is a gap in CMO talent—what CEOs need from them and what they're able to provide. The broader the end-to-end experience, the more power the CMO can bring to understanding insights. If they grew up in marketing communications or brand and creative, they may not be ready for this type of role. We need more strategic, analytical and, in some cases, technological understanding than most CMOs have today. 

So, how do we develop this talent?  The strategic nature of the CMO position is dramatically changing, but we still have a way to go to get to the Heavyweight CMO charter. There are plenty of individuals with the strategic chops to step into these roles today. They need to start showing up and being recruited by those savvy boards that appreciate the value a Heavyweight can bring to the table. This will solidify the importance of the role while others continue to add to their experience and fill their gaps.

Heavyweight CMO

Heavyweight CMO questions from marketingjournal.org.

If you are ready, raise your hand.

For CMOs that are sufficiently prepared and want a more influential seat at the C-suite table, raise your hand. Get out of the boat. You cannot wait to be asked. It's horrible when a CEO has to kick a CMO in the butt to get moving. Every company has its own culture and cadence, but you must find a way to step up and step out that is respectful of your environment. Take on some of these strategic initiatives and be the advocate for transformative change at your company.

The opportunity for your business is limited. Companies need to change now or risk being displaced or out-positioned by the competition, and the chance is up to CMOs. The game is tough. It’s getting tougher. Innovation is happening around us every day. There is more and more data out there. But you have to start taking action in a thoughtful, meaningful way—and you have to do it today.