The Evolution of the CMO

As marketing channels and tools grew over the decades, so did the status and responsibilities of top marketing executives.


Korn Ferry's Caren Fleit is featured in the latest issue of Harvard Business Review. Access the full online article here.

As marketing channels and tools grew over the decades, so did the status and responsibilities of top marketing executives.


Marketing focuses largely on creating TV and print advertising to sell products to consumers. Top-level marketing executives are found almost exclusively in the consumer goods and automotive industries.


Advertising is still limited mainly to paid TV and print channels but moves away from exaggerated claims and aggressively pushing products and toward inventing creative and memorable approaches. The ad campaign is king.


Marketing adopts analytics and begins generating insights about customer choices and segmenting customers. Particularly in consumer goods, marketers become increasingly responsible for product management, pricing, promotion, and distribution.


Cable TV, infomercials, and VCRs (which allow viewers to skip ads) make marketing’s job more complex and ratchet up the pressure for advertising efficiency. Analytics become critical to precisely tracking performance in each sales channel. Consumer-goods marketers start to assume P&L responsibility and enterprise-wide roles. Other industries, like consumer finance, begin hiring top-level marketing executives, though those jobs focus more on branding and corporate communications.


A broader marketing function emerges in industries such as health care and technology, and B2B marketers appear. The role of the marketing leader becomes blurry, as companies struggle to find a balance between more-strategic responsibilities (brand positioning, segmentation, and business growth) and more-tactical ones (sales enablement, creating brochures, and manning trade shows). Marketing departments begin to set up matrix structures combining corporate functions with regional and business unit functions. Customer relationship management takes hold. The CMO title is first used.


The digital revolution changes the way companies and customers relate. As social media platforms take off, people rely more on one another for information about products. Marketers must manage omnichannel communications and both negative and positive messages about their brands. They begin focusing on building meaningful relationships with customers. The CMO title spreads but is used indiscriminately both for executives strictly focused on brand and communications and for true strategic business partners.


Big data and artificial intelligence swamp marketers with information. The focus shifts from telling and selling to customer engagement and dialogues and personalized communications and products. CMOs are expected to creatively apply insights to business challenges, validate decisions with data, create seamless customer experiences across media and revenue channels, and lead efforts to put the customer at the center throughout the organization. Most CMOs now sit on executive committees and report directly to the CEO. But there is confusion about the role, leading some to question the title and explore alternatives like chief customer officer, chief customer experience officer, and chief growth officer.

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