By Rebecca Stewart, Trends Editor

July 2, 2020 | 8 min read

Making the leap from chief marketing officer (CMO) to chief executive officer (CEO) can be a daunting one. But take it from two marketers who have been there and done it, brand leaders are more than equipped to take the hot seat.

The road from CMO to chief executive officer CEO might be one less travelled than other routes. However, for marketers who do aspire to make the upgrade to the corner office, they must first confront a lack of confidence in their professional abilities.

That’s what Sherilyn Shackell believes, anyway. She is global chief executive officer at The Marketing Academy, a non-profit organisation dedicated to helping marketing leaders make the next big move in their career, whether it’s moving into managing director territory or heading up the board.

“For years before we launched this programme, we found it frustrating that CMOs weren’t considered the natural successor to the CEO. Media and advertising have such a powerful impact on systems within (and outside) business, so why would boards not put CMOs at the centre of everything and give them the skills and the opportunity to wield that power in a greater context as the CEO?”

A recent study from recruitment firm Heidrick & Struggles found that almost one-in-five (18%) FTSE 100 CEOs were former marketers. Among them, ex-Tesco CEO Dave Lewis, KFC US president Kevin Hochman and ITV CEO Carolyn McCall.

As part of The Drum’s Can-Do Festival, Shackell hosted a discussion two marketers who have already made the transition: Sarah Warby, chief executive officer at adult toy retailer Lovehoney and Cheryl Calverley, chief executive at DTC sleep brand Eve Sleep. The trio discussed the barriers facing CMOs in landing the top job and what actions marketers who aspire to the position can take to get there.

The CMO confidence crisis

Shackell points to “shocking” insights from an extensive Deloitte study published last year, which gave an insight into perceptions of the CMO held by the board and themselves.

The report found that just 11% of the C-suite deemed the CMO to be a ‘champion of the customer’ and only 17% perceived CMOs as being collaborative. Of all the execs studied, CMOs were found to be the least likely to perceive themselves as high performers, with just 5% agreeing. This was in stark contrast to CEOs, 55% of which said they would rate their own performance highly.

The Marketing Academy boss highlights how this lack of confidence is a barrier to many CMOs looking to make the leap, something Warby and Calverley agree with.

Warby underscores how CMOs “live in a land of uncertainty and future,” predicting trends, spotting opportunities and delivering work that seeks to inspire in the future. She argues that other members of the management team “deal in that lovely, granite, solid world of what’s already happened” and that this can put CMOs at a structural disadvantage and cause self-doubt to linger.

She continues: “It can put CMOs on wobbly ground, and it’s easy for them to fall into the trap of trying to give that certainty and they can’t. They can show how the purchase funnel works or delve into customer insights – they can do lots to build evidence but as CMO you operate in the world of the future and they have to thrive in a world where everyone else is more solid in their facts.”

Calverley puts CMOs confidence issues down to the pressure to objectively measure their work.

“Marketers spend a lot of their time trying to use tools and techniques to prove the effectiveness of your work. It means you’re constantly questioning yourself and asking whether you’ve manipulated the econometrics because you’re trying to make yourself feel good,” she explains.

“You end up in a cycle of asking ‘am I drinking my own Kool-Aid? or ‘am I talking bullshit?’ because I can create money by putting a dancing baby on the television or making a sloth dance – which clearly is bullshit – and so there is an element of being unable to be objective.

“There’s also another element to it where you can hear yourself selling. No-one trusts a salesman, and then you have a crisis of confidence about your own self and whether you’re being truthful.”

Taking the hot seat

For Warby, addressing the CMO confidence crisis lies in agreeing on a solid measurement framework with the CEO.

“It takes a bit of thinking upfront and probably a few bites of the cherry. It’s not going to be solved in one meeting, but that’s one thing I’d have done differently as CMO.”

Calverley argues that top marketers would do well to remember that overseeing marketing does equip them with the skills they need for the hot seat. CEO skills can be unearthed in solving the very puzzles that stop CMOs becoming CEOs in the first place.

“When you do become a CEO, it’s absolutely like marketing in principle,” she asserts.

“You’re taking the evidence you’ve got, you don’t know what’s going to work across the business and you’re taking gambles. The ability to have confidence on limited data, connect the dots with gaps and then use that to energise people into delivering something that works is actually a really cool skill for a CEO to have.”

This bravery, says Shackell, plays a “huge part” in success at any level.

On the various routes marketers adopt on the road to becoming CMO – many plump for a chief financial officer (CFO) or chief operating officer (COO) as a pitstop along the way – Calverley says brand leaders need to ditch the attitude that moving into a role like CEO stops you from being a creative thinker.

“If you're a CMO and you become a CEO, you don't stop being brilliant at marketing. You will as a CMO, become CEO of a business where marketing is absolutely core to the function, I promise.”

The Eve Sleep boss argues that CMOs shouldn’t be put off by the fact they may not know as much about product, or pricing because they have so much knowledge in other areas that do touch customers – like experience, delivery channels and product promotion.

Top tips for CMOs-turned-CEOs

For CMOS finally making the transition, Warby and Calverley have some advice.

Warby, who was formerly marketing director at Heineken and Sainsbury’s before joining Lovehoney as CEO, advises leaders to build two “muscles” – resilience and development.

“It’s a cliché that it’s lonely [at the top]. It is. Be prepared. I’ve worked harder this year than most other years of my life, with more ambiguity, uncertainty and less reason to be confident in my abilities than ever before. I’ve loved it, but it’s not easy. You don’t know what to expect half the time so you need to build resilience.”

For Calverley, being a CEO means knowing your purpose and the “reason why you get out of bed in the morning”.

“I have a strong desire to build things. I have a massive ego that is wrapped up in building things that last in culture. I’m cool with that, I’ve squared it and I want to build brands that someone will look after in 100 years. I want to walk into a room and have people talk about my work. I know why I’m building Eve and why I chose it.”

Calverley, Warby and Shackell spoke as part of The Drum’s Can-Do Festival, an online event celebrating the positive energy, innovation and creative thinking that can make the marketing community such a powerful force for good. You can watch the interview, where they also discuss how CMOs can build successful relationships with CEOs in full here.

Sign up to watch forthcoming sessions and see the full Can-Do schedule here.

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