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Chief marketing officers (with cojones) get well-deserved recognition at SXSW

The role of the CMO is ambiguous at best, says John Ellett, author of The CMO Manifesto, a 100-Day Action Plan for Marketing Change Agents, who hopes to get wider recognition for those marketing officers whose roles keep bobbing and weaving with the changing nature of the marketing world with The Cojones Awards.

“Three years ago, for our speaking proposal for SXSW, I put together a presentation called ‘The C in CMO Stands for Cojones.’ We were planning the presentation and I said, ‘We could just do a one-hour presentation and do it and be done with it, or we could turn this into something that fits a void in the universe of marketing recognition,’ which is creating an award program that actually recognizes boldness and courage in marketing leaders. This is now our third annual event,” said Ellett.

The Austin-based Ellett, the CEO of nFusion and contributor of the Forbes CMO Network, comes from a long marketing background and saw that the CMO role, though often one behind the scenes, required boldness. But rarely did these courageous marketing leaders get the recognition they deserved, in a way that shone a light on the profession.

“One of the big challenges CMOs have is the ambiguity of the role. Every company is completely different. In some companies it’s a global function that's more advisory and inspirational. In other companies they have line responsibility for day-to-day marketing activities. I think the great CMOs are inherently both brained thinkers. They bring the analytical discipline, the understanding of how to use data and numbers to make better decisions. But they're also capable understanding how to craft inspirational stories and are good story tellers.”

Thus, Ellett had an idea for an awards show that recognized them and gave everyone a chance to have a forum and some CMO community building.

“The genesis of the awards goes back to shortly after I published my book and interviewed about 50 CMOs at the time. I began to go to different events and speak about the attributes of a great marketing leader based on what I learned writing the book. And of those attributes, the one I always concluded on was courage and how important it is to have as a marketing leader, because as a change agent you just have to persevere through obstacles and be able to stick your neck out and be bold. The great marketing leaders that I've had the chance to talk with over the years, that's a common characteristic,” he said.

The awards itself are broken into simple categories, but have real substance and point to both the challenges and successes CMOs endure on a daily basis: Inspire (to build authentic brands with a sense of purpose), Be Bold (to disrupt the status quo and break out of the sea of sameness), Connect (to deliver meaningful, cross-channel experiences), Innovate (to implement new ways of engaging customers living a digital lifestyle) and Transform (to build organizational capabilities to become modern marketers).

This year’s list of finalists is, yet again, an impressive array of chief marketers from brands such as KIND, Arby’s, Taco Bell, Seventh Generation, TD Ameritrade, The Home Depot, The Hershey Company and more.

Ellett said that the awards celebration has actually become a favorite for CMOs at SXSW because of its intimate setting and the chance to talk with others in “the tribe.”

“It’s been fun to get the response from folks that are nominated who go ‘wow, this is really cool, thanks for noticing.’”

So long as people keep noticing the Cojones, Ellett hopes the CMO role gets its due.

“To be able to be able to take time to celebrate with my tribe is a lot of fun. It’s rare that we get an opportunity to do that.”