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Sholto Douglas-Home on the enduring value of the CMO role

June 30, 2021

The Chief Marketing, Communications and Sales Officer for Expo 2020 Dubai believes it’s time for senior marketers to be more assertive about the profession’s contribution to the C-suite of an organisation.

There’s never a simple time to deliver a six-month global event that covers a site twice the size of Monaco, will host millions of visitors and has brought together hundreds of the world’s top architects to design more than 190 individual country pavilions. However, if you wanted a real challenge, you’d organise one during an ongoing pandemic. After COVID-19 forced a one-year postponement from the original proposed launch date, Expo 2020 Dubai will open its doors to the world on 1 October 2021.

If the Chief Marketing, Communications and Sales Officer for Expo 2020 Dubai feels frustrations about the added challenges or the delay, he’s certainly not showing it. Sholto Douglas-Home argues that the pandemic has, if anything, brought new purpose to the event and the concept of World Expos which date back to 1851 and have a long heritage of showcasing innovation and problem-solving.

World Expos aim to represent the power and impact of human inventiveness and ingenuity to overcome challenges just like COVID-19,” he says. “As challenging as the pandemic has been, it has given us new purpose and new areas to explore across all manner of global issues, and we have evolved our programming to reflect this. We want everyone who visits to play a role in inspiring a cleaner, safer, healthier future for all, which is summed up in our central marketing proposition of, "Join the making of a new world".

Why marketing needs to lead from the C-suite

It’s a vision that pushes marketing into the centre of strategy. Douglas-Home’s role doesn’t just cover promotional activity, such as the high-profile influencer strategy that’s been playing out on LinkedIn and other platforms since January. He’s also responsible for the reputation management and global broadcast and media partnerships on which the impact of the event depends. And the collaborative nature of the Expo 2020 vision makes it essential for marketing to take on an influential role at the most senior levels of the organisation.

“I don’t see how marketing can do its job properly, in any organisation, if it’s not part of the C-suite,” he says. “Marketing needs to be right at the heart of it all. My relationship with our CFO and the wider finance team needs to be very close, for example. They’re responsible for our commercial partnerships and those partners, like Emirates Airline, Mastercard, Cisco and PepsiCo are a key marketing activation channel for us.”

At some organisations, this need to connect different aspects of strategy has led to soul-searching about marketing’s role – and about how it’s represented in the C-suite. The number of large businesses with Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) has declined over the last decade, while the number of Chief Growth Officers is up 46% year-on-year according to LinkedIn data. For Douglas-Home though, this trend towards reframing marketing is a misguided one.

“I don’t think we should be trying to redefine the essence of what marketing does for an organisation,” he says. “No one is trying to rebrand finance. No one is trying to rebrand sales. We should be proud of being marketers and make sure we build value, equity and appreciation of the value the marketing profession represents.”

Rebranding senior marketing leaders as responsible for growth, customer experience or transformation may emphasise one aspect of their contribution – but at the risk of obscuring others. Douglas-Home insists that a proper marketing contribution draws on every aspect of the profession.

“It’s about educating people that our skills serve many business-critical dimensions,” he says. “Marketing covers the full suite of customer engagement, customer experience, ownership of the growth strategy, as well as countless other strategic priorities that can be dialled up or down in line with CEO demands and corporate strategy.”

Agility built on technology, culture and strategy

Agility has a vital role to play in this vision of a responsive, versatile marketing function – and it’s central to Douglas-Home’s vision for the Expo 2020 experience.

“We will be very focused on customer satisfaction levels,” he says. “We’ve lined up a sophisticated research approach that will enable us to be agile in how we respond to day-to-day feedback, so that we can use the KPIs to refine the experience in real-time.”

Agility may be enabled by technology – but it can only succeed when there’s a strategy that’s consciously made room for it. “There's agility in terms of strategic thinking and scenario planning; and then there’s agility in terms of execution,” says Douglas-Home. “Advances in MarTech can make our knowledge of marketing’s impact pretty instantaneous, but if the organisational infrastructure and cultural mindset isn’t geared to respond rapidly, all of that insight and analytical understanding only falls flat.”

By establishing a responsive, agile culture and strategy, marketing’s potential for delivering even the most ambitious projects grows – provided marketers have the confidence to bring all their skills to the table. “I really believe we’re in a golden age,” says Douglas-Home. “Marketers are only going to become more critical as CEOs realise they can’t do without the key qualities they can bring to the C-suite: data-driven customer insight, coupled with strategic invention and creativity.”