Why It's so Hard for CMOs to Keep Their Jobs

Maybe If We Talked About Why Top Marketers Are Getting Fired, We Can Find Ways to Stay Employed

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Old Navy, Taco Bell, Miller Lite. The list goes on of major brands cutting loose their top marketers within the last month or so. While the specifics vary, it seems that the general trend that Spencer Stuart identified in its first tenure report in the mid-2000s continues to haunt CMOs. Your professional life is going to be short and not so sweet, and I'm not sure there's been a good or accurate conversation about why.

There's been lots of talk about "expectations" and "alignment" (along with other mealy-mouthed buzzwords), but it doesn't budge the performance needle. The most recent stats I could find suggest that far too few CMOs hold their jobs for more than three years; they get fired 25% quicker than chief information officers and nearly twice as often as every other C-suiter. But judging from the literature on the subject, it's as if CMOs are an unappreciated victim class, doomed to suffer the indignities heaped upon them by employers who should know better.

On the other hand, maybe some top marketers deserve to get fired?

I know it's a radical proposition, but it's very possible that there are discernible causes for such termination and, maybe if we talked openly about them, we'd figure out more actionable and successful approaches to staying employed. Consider these three points:

It's the business, stupid.
Making money isn't just how a company stays afloat but why it exists in the first place. Though it's so pedestrian to those of us with liberal-arts degrees, sales are what matter to everyone in a company, so much so that they're as conceptually important to them as concepts of brands are to us. Not only do they understand the idea, but it's what they do for a living. Yet we still think our problem is that we have to better educate them? For all the talk of customer-centricity, you couldn't ask for a clearer or simpler demand from your internal customers: Sell stuff.

The idea of "early successes" is standard in the agency business, not to mention any relationship-based activity. Over-deliver early and you can do no wrong thereafter. So where are the detailed how-tos for CMOs to sell things right out of the chute, no matter what the circumstances? There are endless cases on how to build long-term community and brand equity, but what's the point of doing so if you're unlikely to be in the job by the time the company gets there? Your employer might be talking "brand" but is likely thinking "selling products," so skip producing all the brilliant content that your agency BFF has convinced you has value, and figure out how to make money first. And fast.

It's not your marketplace anymore.
The days of marketers having exclusive (or the most accurate) perspectives on the outside world are long gone. Not only do the other departments in your organization have very substantive perspectives that you can't ignore, but your own insights are biased by the very nature of what you look for. That "conversation" you think you created on Facebook? There were always conversations going on beyond your purview, driven by sourcing, manufacturing, HR, legal, etc., only now they're as slick and compelling as yours. Actually, they're more meaningful, since the conversations prompted by non-marketers usually have something to do with topics more important than marketing.

The purpose of brand awareness is lead generation, no matter how complicated the math gets on getting to that deliverable (or unfashionable it is to admit it). Many of the "successes" we marketers celebrate amongst ourselves (or in the pages of magazines like this one) are branding campaigns that get consumers to talk about branding. So while we're leading one another into this every-tighter circular thinking, our organizations are going about conducting the conversations that lead to purchase. Maybe CMOs get fired because they choose to define themselves by a narrow (and least useful) slice of the communications pie? I wonder if there's a correlation between most-watched brand videos on YouTube and the shaky job security of marketers who put them there?

Become a subject-matter expert.
One of the oddest outcomes of access to the internet is that it makes everyone an expert on everything. This is particularly an issue with marketing, which is a subject without true accreditation or standards. We've always had to explain why a CEO's desire for a press conference wasn't such a good idea, or that copying a competitor's ad slogan or approach wouldn't work. Now, marketing expertise has been truly democratized, or at least distributed throughout your organization. Anyone who has a Twitter account (or a teenager at home who texts) thinks they know as much about marketing as you do.

Only that 's like somebody who appreciates a fine meal assuming they'd know how to cook one. It's just not true. Although they might get part of the way there if they thought about it critically, this is where you come in: CMOs could own the broad topic of engagement with customers and partners.

Call it "curation" or whatever buzzword floats your boat, but the idea would be to stop defining yourself by the tactics of marketing as a function, and embrace the strategy of marketing as a cross-enterprise idea. Own the insights and not the tools. Stop listening to the social gurus and other marketers telling you how to do marketing, and understand instead the drivers of engagement and subsequent action from more diverse sources. Science. Sociology. Even art.

Read marketing books written before 1970, and history written before today's media convinced everyone that our eternal Now is utterly different from every other Then.

But remember to keep selling, first and foremost. And, if you get fired -- and before you go find your next position, switch agencies and repeat the same experience -- take a moment to consider that maybe you deserved it.

Jonathan Salem Baskin is a global brand strategist, author and speaker. Read his blog at dimbulb.net and follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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