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Has the idea of the marketing CEO lost its froth?

A great CMO to CEO story is over, as recently Howard Schultz, Starbucks' former chief executive, officially handed over the reins to his chief operating officer Kevin Johnson.

While leadership teams are looking towards their marketing leads as business drivers, does the new hire at Starbucks signify that businesses are reverting back to a more traditional succession story?

I don’t think so, and here's why. PWC launched a survey in 2015 to showcase what skills today’s chief executives need to be successful and the results were telling. A strategic vision, the ability to cope with constant change, openness to new ways of doing things and an understanding of technology were all skills future chief executives required – and who does this most sound like? Not the CFO or COO, it’s the CMO.

This is very good news; it is a real opportunity for CMOs to reinvent business models and create new marketing strategies that reflect tasks undertaken by CEOs.

Of course, Starbucks will have its own strategic visions and objectives – but what the changing digital landscape means is that today, the CMO is as critical to business success as the CFO and COO. And what is more, with technology leading and redefining the expectations from the customer, CMOs really are best placed to lead organisations as CEOs.

In recent years, there have been many examples of marketers who have secured the top job including Dave Lewis at Tesco, Denise Morrison at Campbell’s Soup and Stephen Cannon, CEO at Mercedes-Benz USA.

And despite the Starbucks decision, businesses need to wake up and smell the coffee – our economy is driven largely by customers that want a more responsive and personalised experience. Businesses such as Amazon, Airbnb and Purple Bricks are examples of companies disrupting the traditional corporate landscape and highlighting the need for change at the very top.

This type of digital transformation is forcing organisations to reshape and reconsider the need for a new type of leader, a leader capable of revenue generation but with the agility to respond to a consumer-led world.

Yes it is true that in the past, marketing departments have been perceived as purely creative functions which only deliver campaigns. But today, the rise in online business and the advances in technology and data have made it possible to truly correlate marketing activity to real business performance.

And that is why its important businesses start seeing CMOs as strategic members of the C-suite and attractive candidates for CEO.

Disrupter businesses like those mentioned above are redefining the rules around how customer relationships are built – there’s no denying that our customer-led economy has been the key catalyst here. So whereas Starbucks appoints a former COO to lead the business, it is my opinion that no one is closer to the customer than the CMO and it’s this customer-centric perspective that will ultimately change the role of the CEO in consumer facing organisations.

To ensure future growth, particularly in the current economic climate, management boards should think seriously about the role of their CEO. Senior stakeholders need to start recognising the value in candidates that can truly lead change, have agility and are innovative, that do not just drive top line growth, but absolutely understand the worth in the customer experience and consumer loyalty.

Marketing leaders are driving constant change and it is the CMO who is best placed to lead organisations. CMOs are prepped and ready to become corporate change agents – their strategic visions gained from unrivalled customer-centric perspectives are more important than ever and will transform and grow businesses.

Chris Daly is chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Marketing

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