Perspectives

You're a CMO. Now What?


12 May, 2021

In response to the pandemic, more executives are being appointed to the chief marketing officer role for the first time ever. We asked seasoned CMOs for their advice on succeeding in the C-suite.

It is not only OK to have an opinion on business issues outside of marketing—it is expected.
— Andrea Brimmer, Ally Financial


What advice do you wish you'd gotten about being a CMO?

Brimmer: Don’t be overprotective about the brand. CMOs can get into adversarial relationships with other business leaders by thinking theirs is the only voice that matters when it comes to the brand. The reality is that the more committed people are to the brand, the easier it makes things for the CMO. When everyone has ownership, there is more pride across the organization.

Thalberg: As a new CMO, you first need to be a student of the company, the organization, and, of course, continually the industry. At the same time, a big part of the role is to be a teacher to your team, but just as importantly to your peers and your board, so they can be brought along on the “whys” behind marketing, not just the “whats.”

Goose: Similar to that, I’d add that CMOs also need to be a storyteller to the C-suite. You need to break down for other C-suite leaders what the customer journey looks like—whom you reached, why they acted on a particular message, and how that influenced their decision. I find that capturing our work in video is the best way to help other C-suite leaders digest and see through to the analytics.

Berra: I know now that brand building isn’t the be-all end-all of marketing. Effective financial management, accountability, and metrics are just as important. My advice to CMOs is to figure out how to turn marketing from a cost center to a revenue generator.

Revelle: I wish someone had told me that what gets you into a CMO role isn’t what will make you successful as a CMO.

Advice for first-time CMOs

Fallout from the pandemic, combined with short tenures and poor succession planning, is leading to a wave of new first-time CMO appointments. Here are five tips for adjusting to the C-suite.

Understand that you are now part of the enterprise management team

Switch your mindset from thinking about marketing success to what the CEO and board view as success.

Don't be overprotective about the brand

Looking at it as “my brand” versus “our brand” can create resentment among other C-suite leaders.

Not everyone in the C-suite understands marketing

Strike a balance between being a learner of other functions and a teacher of yours.

Become a problem solver for a wider set of business issues

Have a viewpoint on areas outside of marketing.

Have a good grasp of effective financial management, accountability and metrics

Realize they are just as important to performance as brand building.

CMOs are constantly going to be questioned about their brand’s stance on a host of social issues.
— Greg Revelle, Kohl's


What are some unique challenges that first-time CMOs face today that you perhaps didn't face?

Berra: The level of accountability, which was already increasing, totally accelerated with COVID. CEOs and boards want to see how marketing activities are driving new customers, sales, and margins. CMOs today are under intense pressure to prove out what they are doing. You can’t overinvest in customer feedback; things are changing so fast you need immediate feedback loops.

Revelle: Customers are much more engaged with social issues and they demand transparency, so CMOs are constantly going to be questioned about their brand’s stance on a host of issues. Understanding these complex issues from a variety of perspectives, and responding appropriately, is critically important. You have to work with all of your stakeholders and ultimately have to make the right decision for your organization.

Goose: Marketers have to reinvent connections and engage consumers in ways they never have before. It’s a constant process of testing, learning, and optimizing, with the expectation that results will get better over time. There’s no such thing as a yearly plan or a set-it-and-forget-it mentality anymore.

Brimmer: That’s a major challenge because people are incredibly fatigued. With budget cuts and layoffs, marketing departments are spread incredibly thin.

Thalberg: Particularly in times of business crisis, the marketing budget can be a prime target for cutbacks. As a leader, it’s important to be able to bring advocacy for what the function needs with as much concrete modeling as possible regarding what the impact to the business will be with and without the proper funding. When investments aren’t optimal, it takes a combination of creativity to work with what you have, as well as transparency about trade-offs. 

CMOs have the shortest tenure of any C-suite position. The function also ranks near the bottom in terms of succession planning. Could that be why we are seeing an increase in the number of first-time CMOs?

Thalberg: The short tenure narrative is frustrating. It suggests a lack of patience, understanding, and support. CMOs can also fall victim to being handed the accountability on results—often quite short- term results—without the corresponding authority and/or resources to fairly own that accountability.

Goose: It’s hard to prove marketing results in the short term. Public companies are focused on quarterly results, and marketing results don’t turn over that quickly.

Brimmer: The function is losing a lot of good talent to other industries. Great marketing minds are going to tech companies or other companies and using the function as a launching pad to other positions. We have to figure out a way to attract, cultivate, and retain more high-potential talent.

Revelle: I think the tenure and succession issues are intertwined. CMOs need to have strong teams to help drive the function with them now that they are part of the C-suite. If CMOs devote too little time to enterprise initiatives, they won’t have the overall impact on the business that’s expected of them. Building great marketing teams can help both increase CMO tenure and develop successors.

Berra: I agree with that. The length of tenure is often a product of the CMO’s ability to be a problem solver for a wider set of questions outside of marketing. CMOs who are too focused on a media plan, for instance, aren’t helping the organization pivot to a new market, product, or operating model. 

The short tenure narrative is frustrating. It suggests a lack of patience, understanding, and support.
— Marisa Thalberg, Lowe's


It's common for organizations to tap a new CMO from the agency side of the industry, as has happened with a few of you. What are some challenges a first-time CMO going in-house from an agency can expect?

Brimmer: Well, the biggest difference is that the agency side has one or maybe two pieces of business, whereas the CMO has the whole pie. Instead of being part of an agency, you are now managing them, so you have to figure out what you really need. Do you need separate digital, social, and media agencies, for instance? Also, culturally, on the agency side, you are with your people. Everyone is a creative spirit like you. As a CMO, you are often surrounded by a group of people who may not get you and, in some cases, think you are frivolous.

Goose: When you are on the agency side of the table, you don’t realize the speed of change and breadth of what happens inside a company. Agencies operate within the scope of the brief given. In a company, the brief sits within the context of so many other things. That’s why it’s important for CMOs to have in-house people who understand internal relationships, products, and services and how marketing activities fit in relation to them. Agencies are great for bringing in outside ideas..

As a new member of the C-suite, what are some opportunities first-time CMOs should be thinking about?

Revelle: How can CMOs apply their skills more broadly to understand what consumers will need in the future, adopting an organizational perspective instead of just a marketing one? CMOs have an opportunity to help organizations anticipate those needs and develop strategies to improve overall performance, not just marketing performance.

Berra: There’s an opportunity to invite yourself into a broader set of strategic decisions and help shape business strategy, product innovation, and even talent acquisition.

Thalberg: The window in which you are looking at things with new eyes is inherently limited, so take advantage of it. If you can marry your fresh perspective with institutional knowledge, it can be very powerful. Demonstrate that you understand the fundamentals but can come at them in some new, exciting ways. 

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For more information, contact:

Caren Fleit: caren.fleit@kornferry..com
Zach Peikon: zach.peikon@kornferry.com