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Strategy Marketing CMO

Long live the chief marketing officer

By Michael Karg , group chief executive

September 12, 2019 | 6 min read

The word on the street is that the days of the chief marketing officer (CMO) are numbered. Tenure of CMOs is the shortest in the C-suite and shrinking. Articles and blogs talk of the “vanishing CMO”, the death and rebirth of the function, and why the role – and the title – have already been consigned to history by some of the world’s biggest brands. I think the underlying thinking is flawed. I think it’s symptomatic of the constant flux and increasing rate of change in today’s media and marketing ecosystem. And I think it reflects a lack of understanding of what marketing – with its unique C-suite blend of art and science – actually is and does.

What are senior marketers' plans for the future?

Long live the chief marketing officer

So how did we get here? How did marketing and marketing leadership come to have such an existential crisis? For me, it’s all down to where many marketers – and those advising them – have been focused in recent years. Surely nothing could be more important to corporate success than designing and delivering a seamless and successful customer experience that grows brands, drives profit, and delivers meaningful and sustainable return on investment. The four (or six) Ps haven’t been either slowly overthrown or suddenly usurped by developments and innovations in marketing technology and the means of delivery.

The problem is, I believe, that too many marketers have been focusing for too long on the tactical and executional aspects of performance marketing. Because performance marketing delivers near real-time metrics and evidence of impact, many have become addicted to the quick fix and instant high of the here and now at the expense of long-term brand building. By sweating and optimizing the small stuff, the profession and its supportive industries have narrowed their focus too much and led many in marketing to work primarily on lower-funnel advertising (or digital advertising). And they’ve done this at the expense of building deep and long-term relationships with their customers using the full range of tools available.

According to the gurus of marketing effectiveness, Les Binet and Peter Field, the optimal budget split between long-term brand building to short-term sales activation is 60:40. However, ever since the 2007 global recession, this ratio has skewed increasingly in favour of short-term, sales activation. Binet and Field observe two trends which reflect this shift. First, there has been a four-fold increase in entries focused on short-term effects to the biennial IPA Effectiveness Awards. And second, every year since 2012, the number of very large business effects reported by the IPA Databank has been steadily falling. CMOs around the world are investing too much time and money in short-term sales activation and this is reflected in decreased effectiveness of marketing spend. These two, related phenomena, have been accelerated by the rush to digital response channels.

Marketing has of course become more complex – more channels, more responsibilities, more partners to work with and align. But that doesn’t mean that the overarching, holistic role is redundant, or that the title needs to change. It means that the process of narrow specialization needs to be well-balanced with the broader perspective. In our world of constant flux, the C-suite has never needed a customer champion more if it’s to drive genuine, long-term, profitable growth.

Data from the Harvard Business Review suggest marketers’ over-narrow focus on marketing communications and social media is not just down to them. As marketing has grown to cover other disciplines, many companies have narrowed CMOs’ responsibilities to just these areas. This is another reason why ambitious CMOs – who realise the full potential for the discipline – jump ship when they realise their ambitions and abilities are being short-changed because of a myopic view of what marketing is and what it can achieve.

Changing the name of the role is a red herring. Re-badging the CMO as chief customer officer, chief experience officer, or president of brands won’t change the fundamental need for a C-level champion to lead the marketing function and own the end-to-end customer experience. Almost all of the suggestions I’ve heard are narrower and less holistic than the all-encompassing CMO title. Indeed, they’re more a reflection of current realities than the ideal state or aspirations for the role.

One last point. If brands are to seize the opportunities that data, technology, analytics, customer experience design – oh, and advertising – offer, there’s definitely a case to be made for a more holistic and strong marketing function with representation on corporate boards. However, given the rapidly evolving marketing ecosystem marketing leaders need to commit to a continuous process of learning and development – grounded in the core principles of marketing and reflective of the underlying dynamics of the trade. For CMOs to hold their own alongside their C-level peers, more marketing leaders will need to be able to speak the language of the board and translate marketing activities into business impact. In 2050, I predict that a CMO without an advanced degree in marketing and business management will be rare.

The CMO is dead? I don’t think so. Long live the CMO.

Michael Karg is group chief executive of Ebiquity.

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