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It's time to be a business-first CMO — here are 3 tips for making the switch

By Christa Carone | President

June 28, 2022 | 6 min read

Focusing on securing more marketing dollars should never be the sole priority of a chief marketer, argues Infillion Media's Christa Carone. Instead, she says, it pays for marketers to invest in becoming well-rounded business leaders who can help drive the company's bottom-line success.

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Many of us in the ad, marketing and media world have just returned from Cannes Lions, where creative work was honored, expertise was championed and marketing leaders were given full celebrity treatment.

Now we return to our offices, with colleagues bracing themselves for earnings calls and grimly facing business headwinds: rising inflation, a possible recession and other troubling macroeconomic forces. CMOs everywhere are feeling increased pressure to justify plans and expenditures to drive revenue. The sooner we replace our Cannes sunglasses with clear goggles, the better.

When I first became a corporate officer, the company CEO told me: “You’re not here just because you’re a marketing lead. You’re here because we believe you can contribute to the overall business.” All too often, she said, CMOs do little more than advocate for more marketing dollars — but my responsibility to the company and to our shareholders as CMO was greater than my title.

It was an important lesson: to win the respect of my colleagues, I needed to consider their plans through the lens of multiple stakeholders. That approach helped the business overall — and likely resulted in more support for marketing's most important initiatives.

So what does it take for CMOs and other marketing leaders to be well-informed and strategic operational leaders — especially during turbulent times?

1. Hone your business acumen

CEOs are astonished when senior marketing leaders only talk about key performance indicators and return-on-investment in meetings and use their position primarily to advocate for more marketing dollars. Marketing leaders must lean into the financial dynamics of the business and appreciate the value of building a sustainable business model.

Keeping a beat on consumer confidence and spending trends will only get you so far. Marketers must understand basic corporate finance and Wall Street terminology: the nuances of cash-flow analysis, capital allocation and balance-sheet management — and what interest-rate trends and global events mean for business operations. They should be intellectually curious and read their company’s — and its competitors’ — annual reports and earnings releases and heed analysts' predictions about the company.

CMOs shouldn’t be shy about getting a master class in financial management from their chief financial officer and head of investor relations. When I was a corporate CMO, colleagues were always gracious with their time and were patient with my ignorance. We agreed that were no dumb questions: I asked about debt securitization and they asked about the relational dynamics of supply-side, demand-side and data managment platforms.

I continue to apply those master class lessons every day. And my ability to pivot from a CMO role to a profit and loss operating positione stems from that single 'officer talk' given by our CEO — and the opportunity to take a front row seat on influencing business investments that impact multiple stakeholders.

2. Be a corporate diplomat

Marketers, so skilled at networking and building strong business connections in their industry, often neglect those skills inside their own companies. Have coffee with the CIO or CTO to better understand their priorities.

It could help you understand that the new benefits program your HR department is championing is more important to the business than a sports sponsorship you’re squeezing into the budget. Understanding the art of compromise and prioritization might lead you to suggest a shift in priorities: “Listen, we’re facing higher rates of employee attrition. We can recruit and retain great people if we allocate some of the marketing budget to this new benefit program.” Prioritizing the overall business might be unexpected coming from the CMO but demonstrates the agility and thoughtfulness of a well-rounded business leader.

3. Take the long view on your career

If building a better business isn’t good enough reason to be more business-savvy, there’s this: average CMO tenure has hovered at 40 months since 2020 — the shortest span since 2009, per data from Spencer Stuart. Plus, as the Association of National Advertisers has noted, many CEOs believe that CMOs' own shortcomings are responsible for CMO turnover.

But consider this: according to McKinsey & Company, CMOs have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to lead growth, as 78% of CEOs are now banking on CMOs and marketing leaders to drive growth. Marketing leaders who show they’re aligned with overall business needs and challenges become the valued business partners that the senior team — and the entire company — needs. And this could pave the way for continued success for years for CMOs interested in a bigger corporate role or even entrepreneurship.

I’ll be forever grateful to the CEO who inspired me to learn about our company and our industry beyond my role as a marketing leader. Awards and once-a-year red-carpet treatment in Cannes are terrific, but these opportunities don’t make a great CMO. Being a strategic business leader does.

Christa Carone is president of Infillion Media.

Modern Marketing Business Leadership Today’s Office

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