CMOs Still Say They Can Grow Post-Recession

Spencer Stuart Survey: Focus Is on Cost Cutting Rather Than Long-Term Biz Building

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NEW YORK ( -- In these tough economic times, chief marketing officers are keeping their heads down, focused on meeting the short-term demands of the job. But are they kidding themselves by thinking that when the recession subsides, they'll be able to jump right back in the game after having shelved long-term plans?

The results of this year's survey of more than 300 senior-level marketers by executive-search firm Spencer Stuart, which will be revealed at its annual CMO Summit May 5, raises the question. More than half of survey respondents, 55%, said emphasis on a short-term response to the economic downturn has led them to neglect long-term strategy. Yet more than 80% said they believe they are in "good" or "excellent" shape to drive growth once the downturn subsides. According to the survey, 57% assume 2010 will be better than 2009.

So how does one explain the discrepancy, given the conventional wisdom that growth comes from marketing investment, not cost-cutting? Are CMOs talking a good game but not following up?

"Most CMOs, by nature, are optimists and believe the pain they are enduring now will lead to gains longer-term," said Tom Seclow, leader of Spencer Stuart's marketing-officer practice. "Many have not lived through a prolonged economic downturn."

Different criteria
Sixty-four percent of survey respondents said they are measuring success differently in the economic downturn, focusing on controlling expense budgets (60%), retaining high-value customers (49%) and demonstrating positive return on marketing investments (48%). In other words, they are focused on sustaining rather than growing (see chart at right).

CMOs are "fighting fires right now," Mr. Seclow said, by "cutting head count, reducing ad budgets, reallocating the spending that they do have. They are in reduction mode. And frankly, many of them are looking to beat the 28-month tenure number that we publish in another Spencer Stuart survey." He added: "Given the priorities of what they have to do right now, long-term strategy is probably not one of them."

That's a dicey proposition, said Lisa Baird, CMO at the U.S. Olympic Committee. "I don't think you can ever give up on the strategic direction of an organization," she said. "While there's a need to be responsive in this environment, no doubt ... nothing you do in the short term should conflict with or be inconsistent with your long-term strategy."

Michael Mendenhall, senior VP and CMO at Hewlett-Packard, agreed. "A marketer would be remiss to quickly neglect mid- to long-term strategies or even short-term strategies in this environment," he said. "This is really about reappropriating tactical marketing resources to meet the current market dynamic. This is not about huge shifts in strategy and/or the neglect of strategy. Any marketer that is neglecting strategy or completely ignoring strategies will find itself struggling."

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