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The CMO's Ultimate Survival Guide: How to Train Your CEO

To Stay Afloat in a Sea of Super Egos, Keep Your CEO Engaged

By Published on . 4

Much has been written about how chief marketing officers are toiling to come up with unique ways to make themselves useful and productive in their organizations. We hear far less about the fact that the average CMO's tenure is quite short. The last average I saw put that tenure at less than two years.

How can you survive and thrive in such a difficult and, in some cases, almost impossible job? Here's the answer in three letters: CEO.

First, consider the two major internal structural problems with this job. A CMO is surrounded by colleagues who mostly have their own agendas as to how to succeed in their organizations. A good CMO will always make enemies if he tries to point out problems with a brand manager's ill-conceived marketing plan.

Being brutally honest can be an enormous problem in a land of egos, especially high-level egos. I was once asked by a marketing executive to help kill a top management executive's bad idea about his brand. I did this in the form of a detailed analysis that did indeed point out problems with this bad idea. Unfortunately, this analysis was videotaped and sent up into the upper reaches of this company for all to see. I'm not sure what happened to that young executive, but he was never heard from again.

Next, there is always the danger of a competing function in the business. Often that function is represented by the chief financial officer. Many of these types are suspicious of the marketing money being spent. It goes back to that old saw uttered by a retail chief executive, "I know half of my advertising budget is wasted. My problem is that I don't know which half." The CFO's solution is often to kill both halves, thus increasing earnings. In my experience, the CFO is more highly placed than the CMO. Justifying marketing expenditures is never an easy task.

External problems
Now let's deal with the external problems. Let's say a CMO has developed the right positioning strategy. When it's time to implement and communicate that strategy with the advertising agency, the strategy can disappear in a cloud of so-called creativity. If you challenge the agency's work, you'll get into a big argument that sometimes lands on the CEO's desk. Suddenly, a CEO with little marketing and advertising experience is in the middle of the battle. This is never good for the strategy or the CMO's job. Even as an outside consultant I get into these arguments, and they can become uncomfortable for all involved.

All of this pressure from inside and out explains why CMOs have such a limited lifespan. So what to do? Realize that the CEO holds the key. He or she is the ultimate keeper of the brand. That person has to be educated and involved in the strategic process. A CMO has to make this happen if he or she wants to see the right strategy born, properly financed and kept alive.

I'm not saying this is easy -- the CEO will have no one to fire if things don't go well. After all, he can't fire himself. But, once he or she is aboard, you won't have to fight the financial or product people about their agendas. Once you have the CEO's blessing, their arguments rarely show up.

What does CEO training look like? You have to be a little sneaky about it, as a CEO doesn't want to be "trained" by his employees. I'd start with suggesting books you have read that can help your cause. Also, be aware of interesting new articles that seem relevant to your situation and send them along with a note about why a given article is helpful.

Visiting experts
Then there is the visiting-experts strategy. Set up an internal strategic conference where you can bring in outsiders to talk about strategy and share war stories. In this setting you can educate the CEO, the CFO and all top management people.

Are there examples of CEOs acting like CMOs? Absolutely. Consider the late Steve Jobs. He operated like that and even called the advertising shots. On the other side of the globe, India's recent "CEO of the year," Rajiv Bajaj, is very involved with marketing strategy and is building India's most successful motorcycle company, Bajaj Auto. Southwest Airline's former CEO, Herb Kelleher, functioned the same way. The same can be said for John Schnatter of Papa John's Pizza. Most of these are people with whom I've worked, and I saw up close why a CEO who takes the lead on marketing strategy is so effective.

Let me leave you with some advice from Peter Drucker, the father of business consulting. He once wrote that the purpose of business is to generate new customers. Only two functions do this: marketing and innovation. All others are expenses. That simple statement clearly makes the case for the CEO to work very closely with the CMO on setting the strategy and making sure it stays set.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jack Trout is president of Trout & Partners, a global marketing expert and author.

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly referred to the "late" Herb Kelleher. Mr. Kelleher is still alive.

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