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Aspire to Be a Retail CMO? Diversify Your Skill Set

Kmart, Target Are on the Hunt for Execs Who Are Not Only Fluent in a Variety of Media But Are Data Driven and Tech Savvy

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CMO strategy

Retail chief marketing officers are coming of age.

With each decade, the marketing role at major retailers has become more integral to the organization -- and more complicated. That's necessitated significant changes in the type of person who fills the role. It's no longer enough to be creative. Retail marketers must be data-driven customer advocates able to deliver a consistent brand experience across platforms. They must be fluent in a variety of media, from the mundane circular to cutting-edge mobile apps. It's a rare skill set, and Kmart and Target are both trying to find someone who has it.

"We're beginning to pity the poor head of marketing at every major retailer," Credit Suisse analyst Michael Exstein wrote in a recent report. "For some time, it has been abundantly clear that reaching the customer via marketing was going to be an increasingly challenging venture.

"In the olden days, retailers simply dropped a few print ads a week and supplemented those physical ads with some creative TV marketing," Mr. Exstein wrote. "With the advent of the internet, the expansion of mobile technology and even the explosion of TV programming options, that simple approach to marketing has all but become extinct." 

The tremendous amount of consumer data -- from social-media platforms, mobile apps, call centers, loyalty programs and registries -- is one reason the job of a retail CMO has gotten more complex.

"In particular, for the retail universe, these people have to be more data-driven than they were in the past," said David Cooperstein, VP and CMO practice leader at Forrester. "It's not just looking at numbers but having a strategic reaction to them."

The developments have led some retailers to begin looking beyond the retail industry for fresh ideas. Mr. Cooperstein cited Walmart's Stephen Quinn, who joined from PepsiCo, and Best Buy's Barry Judge, who spent time at Y&R and Coca-Cola.

"Companies are recognizing there's talent that 's grown up in a different culture or environment," Mr. Cooperstein said. "They're hiring smart business people, as opposed to marketers or merchants who grew up in the organization."

Traditionally, merchants led product decisions at many retailers, with marketers brought in after the fact to advertise the products.

"We've seen [the head marketer] take on a much more critical role, a more strategic role," said Mike Gatti, a senior VP at the National Retail Federation. "It's not just "run the promotions and get people to buy things.' It's more about, strategically, how are we positioning our brand? How are we delivering the brand promise? How are we selling product and driving people into the store?"

In the past 15 years, head marketers have gained a title that reflects their enhanced clout. According to Mr. Gatti, the CMO title has been widely used in the retail industry only since the late 1990s. Kmart named its first CMO in 2000, and Michael Francis, former head marketer at Target , was the first to hold the CMO title at the retailer, a designation he added in 2008.

The fact that the head marketer is now part of the C-suite most likely makes the job more appealing to outside talent, something that bodes well for Kmart and Target . Both are actively recruiting to fill the CMO posts vacated by Mark Snyder in September and Mr. Francis in October.

Leaders from the hotel, airline and rental car industries, as well as consumer products companies -- from technology to packaged foods -- would be logical places to look for talent who could excel in the retail space, according to Mr. Cooperstein.

Target would not comment on the status of its hunt, but industry insiders believe the company is evaluating a mix of internal and external candidates, including those who outside the retail sector.

Kmart has a history of recruiting beyond the retail industry. Mr. Snyder came from the hotel business, while his predecessor, Bill Stewart, had been with Levi's and Coca-Cola.

Tom Aiello, a spokesman for Sears Holdings, Kmart's parent company, said the retailer is looking to "innovate, not replicate" in hiring new talent. Digital and mobile skills, as well as a diverse background, are particularly attractive in potential candidates, he added.

"The CMO has really become the voice of the customer, the [person who says], "How does this all fit into the life of our customer?'" Mr. Aiello said. "We're now communicating through so many different vehicles and in so many different ways. To customize that experience, we have to have a CMO that 's going to tie it all together with the customer in mind."

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