Does the CMO Deserve a Seat at the Big Table?

Better Question: With All the Data-Focused Minutiae That Have Become Part and Parcel of the Function, Do you Even Want One?

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The change in the CMO's job description that we've seen over the past 10 years has the potential to do more than shorten careers. It may suffocate business.
Gutsy move: CMO Ted Ward added cavemen to Geico ads and got bonus publicity with a TV series.
Gutsy move: CMO Ted Ward added cavemen to Geico ads and got bonus publicity with a TV series. Credit: Bob D'Amico

In too many cases, the CMO is totally focused on short-term output and ignores the big picture. Yes, we all need to be accountable. But just measuring ROI is not necessarily going to improve ROI.

The time is ripe for the pendulum to begin to swing back. If it doesn't, the CMO position probably should be moved out of the boardroom. Give the seat to the VP-sales instead.

Brave new world
I'm not blaming CMOs. For one thing, they have become victims of the accountability mantra just as the numbers have started to make no sense. You can measure clicks and visits, but how can you know whether your foray into Facebook is moving the sales needle? No one can justify the guerrilla tactics required to make a splash in the marketplace by ROI alone.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a marketer who loves the numbers. I'm just saying that if your job has become this small, it may not be an executive position.

So when did the CMO become a spreadsheet jockey? Several years ago, heads of marketing really didn't care much about the mechanics of ROI. And that wasn't ideal either. Measurement was left to direct marketers and basement-dwelling data geeks. I had the experience of talking to a CMO of a large national bank who told me, "I know exactly what my advertising buys me. I just don't trust the tracking and measurement of our direct marketing."

I couldn't believe it. He thought his big advertising campaign was directly responsible for every new customer who walked in the door -- and he had those counts. But he had no idea where the data came from for his direct campaigns. Like a guy explaining why buying a little red convertible makes sense for his family of five, this CMO didn't even realize he sounded ridiculous. He was justifying his multimillion-dollar advertising spend the best way he knew how.

I don't tell this story to make fun of the guy. He had a big job, and he didn't have the time (or the inclination) to scrutinize the numbers he received from his staff. And by the way, his advertising was effective. The bank grew substantially during those years.

Fine tuning
Fast-forward 10 years. At my last meeting with a CMO of a major technology company, we combed through every variable we tested at every step of the sales process. We fine-tuned campaigns the way I used to adjust my stereo equalizer.

Today, I'm afraid the big-bank CMO would be stressing over the details of individual projects, tweaking the copy, kerning the headline, deciding whether to approve the smallest budget change based on whether it would have an impact on results. Don't you prefer the stereo with built-in equalizer technology?

If everything you know has to fit on a spreadsheet so it can be presented with equal weight alongside the CFO's documents, you're in trouble.

That's why it's time to stop sweating the small stuff. I've seen people get too focused on the numbers as the be-all and end-all. It's paralyzing. When something has worked in the past, they run the same program or campaign over and over until it's run into the ground. Then they throw good money after bad, still hoping the results will change. They feel it's a safe choice because they have numbers from a few years ago showing that the idea can work. But justifying a decision can be quite different from being successful.

Thinking ahead
The CMO position is strategic and proactive, not tactical and reactive. That's where your value lies.

Get your nose out of the data and into fresh air. Let the CFO present the numbers. You bring big ideas. Of course, you have to understand the numbers and know which levers to pull to get those numbers to jump. But you have enough bean counters on the team.

I see campaigns out there that don't play it safe. I admire that. It took guts on the part of CMO Ted Ward to add cavemen to the Geico brand and keep the gecko, too. I wouldn't have done it. It certainly looks like it's paying off -- and that includes the extra publicity of the "Cavemen" TV series. There's no way you could predict something like that would work based merely on past performance.

A significant part of your job as an executive is to sell a long-term marketing strategy to your CEO and peers on the committee. Sometimes it means big, brand-changing moves. Sometimes it's dipping your toe into a new medium.

Narrowing your sights
You're not going to make every project or campaign a complete success. It can't be done. You'll have some winners and some losers on the way to achieving your goals. One way to focus on the big picture is to have fewer goals. If you tell your CEO you have 20 targets to hit by the end of 2008, come September you'll want to take your eye off the big picture and start shoring up some of the lower priorities. Fewer, bigger goals actually keep you out of the weeds.

Make sure at least one of your three or four goals addresses something a little softer than just sales targets -- such as creating buzz for your company or holding your team to higher creative standards. This is a great way to extend your tenure as a CMO -- not because you have some goals that are harder to measure but because you have much more control over your success.

It's essential to have the ability to go with your gut, regardless of immediate sales potential. If mobile marketing or Facebook could make sense for your product and your target audience, you have to jump in.

Calculated risks
This may sound odd coming from a marketer who's a self-proclaimed accountability freak. One of the secrets of direct marketing is that every once in a while, you need to take chances and test new things. We love breakthrough ideas as much as any general advertiser. Sadly, we're so accountable now, we're often able to do only the tried-and-true. As a CMO, you have to take your foot off the brake occasionally and see what else may have impact.

What we're all missing -- advertising-agency account executive, direct marketer and CMO alike -- is the opportunity to take an even broader view and go for the really long-term payoff. That's the CMO's job. That's exciting, empowering and even inspirational. If you do it, you deserve the title of chief marketing officer.
Spyro Kourtis is president-CEO of the Hacker Group. He has more than 17 years of direct-marketing experience. He is also publisher of High Performance Direct and writes a monthly column for Puget Sound Business Journal.
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