04 Jan 2016

Hunting the Unicorn - How we're driving the CMO out of existence and into mythology.

It’s a well-known anecdote that the average tenure of a CMO is short – just under two years in fact – but little real thought as to why this is. CEOs might blame marketers for being too fluffy and flighty, always looking for the next adventure rather than long term commercial success. CMOs could potentially retaliate that the Board has unrealistic expectations or no understanding of the value marketing can add to a business and it’s certainly the case that analysts tend to ignore aspects like customer loyalty or brand equity when making an evaluation of business success. We would go further – as the role of the CMO continues to morph into Chief

Customer Officer or Digital Marketing Director or Customer Experience Director, neither the business or the individual really has a grasp of the role or accountabilities; leading to unrealistic expectations of what one individual can harness and really achieve and a cycle of mutual disappointment with the outcomes.

That the role of marketing within businesses has grown increasingly nebulous is undisputed. As new channels are developed, new trends are identified and more data becomes available, these aspects are awkwardly bolted onto the job description and the CMO role finds itself with more responsibility and less definition.

Arguably, marketing is the most rapidly changing function on the Executive team and there has been relatively little consideration of how all of these new elements can sit comfortably within the strategic remit of just one person. Indeed, on a recent search, a senior executive dryly summed up the situation: “so you’re looking for someone who is a cross between Jesus and a character from Mad Men?”

Whilst this was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, just consider three of the issues that have been flagged as the key challenges for CMOs in 2016:

1) Big data and faster analysis of insight

2) Individualisation not personalisation

3) Creating spellbinding content marketing

Any one of those issues could be the work of an entire career for one marketer, yet CMOs are expected to be master of all – not only technically savvy and highly analytical, but founts of originality and creativity. Undoubtedly, these rare creatures do exist, but they are few and far between, so what options for the CMO that admits they can’t do it all?

Firstly, there is an argument for devolving the powers of the CMO to subject matter experts, creating separate functions for data and creativity for example. This currently works well for some very large businesses who have the headcount and investment to justify this. However, it does not make financial sense for smaller businesses and even in larger business, the practice can create silos. It also doesn’t solve the problem of coordinating the various functions, as most CEOs are working to cut down their direct reports rather than increase them. 

Secondly, the demands of the CMO on an executive team are not just as functional experts. Increasingly, clients ask us to find CMOs who are “business people with a background in marketing”. Expected to contribute to commercial and strategic decisions that sit outside of their immediate functional responsibility, CMOs need to be business leaders who can understand a P&L, not just NPS. Just like in other business functions, those who are most passionate about their own area (be it accounting or digital marketing) and have developed deep expertise are less likely to have the skillset or inclination to take on broader leadership roles. By emphasising the need for experts, more junior marketers are less likely to be open to career moves that round out their operational or commercial understanding. Thus, businesses are effectively strangling the future talent pools for CMO candidates and the lack of capability becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

The answer? Certainly there’s no silver bullet. Any CEO looking to hire a CMO or design a marketing function for their organisation should keep in mind these points:

1) What type of marketing do you want to do and subsequently, what type of marketer do you need? Perhaps a strongly analytical marketer who can process large amounts of raw data to produce useable insight is exactly what is required, so hiring an FMCG brand marketer is unlikely to be the right solution.

2) What is the role of the CMO within the business? Will they sit as part of the senior management team? If so, functional expertise does not guarantee good leadership.

3) Encourage more junior members of the marketing team to take on roles that push them beyond their comfort zone. CMOs do not spring into the world fully formed and you are more likely to get the CMO you desire if you help to shape them.

If not, the likelihood of a successful hire recedes into the distance and you might as well be searching for that unicorn after a


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