When the Superhero CMO Turns You Down

Three options for firms that may not be able to grab the perfect candidate: a new Korn Ferry report.

In the first half of the 20th century, a place like Duluth, Minn., probably looked very attractive to a marketing executive. It had a bustling port, and some of the most innovative industries at the time—steelmaking and shipbuilding—had major presences there.

But these days, attracting top talent—particularly marketing talent—can be considerably tougher for legacy industrial organizations that built their headquarters decades ago in Duluth or hundreds of other places like it across America’s heartland. Indeed, many firms are seeing their first choices to be chief marketing officer turn them down because they’re located in towns that are hours away from major cosmopolitan centers, the industries themselves aren’t particularly sexy, or the pay may be lower than what a top marketing exec might expect, says James Patteson, head of strategy and analytics for Korn Ferry’s Marketing Officers practice.

The rejections come at a time when many of these older industrial firms need fresh marketing perspectives, because their business models are changing. “These firms, perhaps for the first time in their histories, need a chief marketing officer who can, among other things, develop a strategy that doesn’t always revolve around price,” says Patteson. “The CEO and the board believe they need a superhero CMO.” But the feeling isn’t mutual.

Patteson, along with Senior Client Partner Joanne Stroud and Principal Julie Forman, laid out three alternatives to the superhero CMO in a new Korn Ferry report: The ideal CMO isn’t available. Now what? The first option is to hire an “enlightened” sales leader, an industry veteran with sharpened sales instincts who is adept at working with customers to understand what they really need. For this type of person to succeed as a CMO, he or she likely will need people who can help with data analytics, pricing, and digital strategy.

The second option is the “crossover” CMO, an experienced CMO from another sector. This candidate knows the ins and outs of modern marketing but does not have the feel of the industry. The crossover CMO will need someone who can help him or her understand the company’s dynamics and politics, and can act as a bridge between the new CMO and the larger organization.

Finally, these companies can bring in a third option, a first-time CMO. This full-of-potential candidate will need help with onboarding, along with coaching on how to develop a complete marketing strategy and align the executive team around it.

Regardless of which option firms take, they have to establish a clear definition of the top-driving performance outcomes. “However,” says Patteson, “when done right, these non-traditional candidates will provide a significant return on investment.” 

The DNA of an Ideal Marketing Executive


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