What a Master Retail Marketer Is Made of

Successful CMOs Draw on Skills From Merchandising, CPG, Other Experience

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Brad McLane
Brad McLane
Melanie Steinbach
Melanie Steinbach

With the passage of President Barack Obama's stimulus package, the administration hopes that consumers will soon find extra cash on hand. Retailers, under tremendous pressure from the economic recession, are hoping they will too. For companies scrambling to attract the coming stimulus-induced dollars, talented CMOs able to lead and draw in consumers are an invaluable asset.

The successful retail marketer is built, not created, of course. It takes a range of experience to accrue the relevant skills, and that experience is not linear -- it is not a consequence of a 20-year marketing career at only one company.

Retail is a business that, at its core, embraces marketing as a discipline but has imported many non-retail marketers into senior roles with varying degrees of success. The pace of retail is very different from that of most package-goods businesses, and the immediacy of feedback can be overwhelming. Couple that with the fact that most retail organizations are merchant- and operations-driven, and non-retail marketers can feel as though they've entered a very foreign world.

A strong argument can be made that some of the best marketers in retail have a merchant mentality; they may have held merchandising positions earlier in their careers. It is true that the best merchants are actually quite good marketers who buy for their customers vs. themselves, and that the best marketers in retail approach marketing from a merchant's perspective, with an intimate understanding of the product, the customer and his or her needs, as well as a feel for the rhythm and cadence of retail.

Blending strategies and tactics
Master retail marketers are capable of operating simultaneously at ground level and at 30,000 feet. They have an ability to blend strategies and tactics, because they have to. Every strategy has to be viewed in terms of its ability to be easily and powerfully executed on the shop floor by the brand managers who deal with customers every day. For non-retail marketers in this environment, the learning curve can be quite steep.

Flourishing retail marketers can be found in a wide range of companies and industries, with varied backgrounds. Careers have followed crafted yet jagged paths. Branding and mass-marketing skills can come from consumer package goods, and direct-marketing and quantitative skills can come from credit-card marketing or subscription models, while online and social-network marketing has been perfected only in the past few years. Outstanding retail CMOs need all of this. The challenge for any company is to find these "super marketers."

In short, the ideal marketer must be a consensus builder. He or she must be comfortable with the challenges of reaching agreement among occasionally conflicting interests and be able to interact effectively across the functions and businesses of the company. To be successful, he or she will show the ability to both learn from colleagues and add value to their thinking, essentially executing with the team while educating the team.

Fundamentally, he or she must have the ability to influence, shape and drive dialogue by building buy-in across the organization on topics relevant to the consumer, the market and business strategy.

Brad McLane is co-leader of the Marketing Officers Practice for the Americas at Russell Reynolds Associates, a global executive-search and assessment firm.
Melanie Steinbach is a member of Russell Reynolds Associates' Retail and Marketing Officers practices.

A proven leader
The best team in the world is useless if there's no one to lead it. So a successful marketer will be a proven leader who has built and managed diverse teams and who instills confidence, focus, camaraderie and passion within his or her organization. As a seasoned leader, he or she will evaluate, recruit, develop and retain a motivated marketing team that represents excellence across all marketing disciplines.

With the economy in a prolonged contraction, business acumen -- a prerequisite in the best of times -- is at a premium now. The right CMO must be a practical, hands-on executive who not only demonstrates creativity and market innovation but also has a demonstrable track record of excellence in driving results, executing plans and delivering within budgets to both the top and bottom line.

Being numbers-savvy extends beyond the budget sheet. A leading CMO will have advanced analytical skills that enable him or her to understand specific loyalty drivers for each marketable customer segment, measure impact on margins and lifetime value, and refine tactics by predicting customer behavior. Leading CMOs must also possess the integration capabilities to convert insight generated by analytics into segment-specific offers and campaigns on the one hand and merchandising, store layout, discounting, channel strategies and customer service on the other.

Building these skills is a process that takes time and effort. But experience will ultimately lead to talented leaders with the ability to navigate complex, changing and unpredictable markets and stay ahead of the competition. And in the struggle to attract consumer cash in the economic stimulus' wake, that's what it's all about.

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