Every Young Person Has the Potential to Be the Next CMO

A Call for Industry Leaders to Market Marketing Better

By Published on .

Reprints Reprints

Credit: Hong Li/Getty Images

In a few weeks, thousands of young men and women will toss their caps into the air as newly minted graduates of America's finest institutions. Many will join our ranks in the marketing profession. But as industry veterans, we have much more work to do to create and lead modern marketing organizations.

Because let's face it, for too long, marketing has been misunderstood and too narrowly defined. The terms "advertising" and "marketing" are still used interchangeably, and further, it's been a career path that people have stumbled into rather than purposefully pursued.

Back in 2009, I wrote a piece for Ad Age making the case that marketing needed its own chief marketing officer. I argued that if marketers were better at marketing our own profession, we'd have the proverbial seat at the table. Our value would be clear.

Now more than six years later, we've made up some ground. Marketing's influence and oversight spans beyond advertising to strategy, operations, communications, consumer experience and more. Our contributions are being valued across the C-suite and we've developed far more sophisticated tools to measure performance.

Despite a slight drop in 2015, CMO tenure has increased more than 25% since 2009, from about 35 months to 44.

Greg Welch, who founded Spencer Stuart's CMO practice, calls top executives with this broader suite of responsibilities "CMO-plus." He points to Greg Butz of Comcast and Tom O'Toole of United Airlines as two examples of CMOs "operating as general managers" who also happen to be great marketers. In fact, O'Toole is a former chief information officer who essentially manages everything from food and beverage to United's loyalty program.

This is great progress. But I believe there is still a lot of work to be done. And it's time to flip the old saying on its head: "Those who can should teach."

While interest in marketing careers at colleges and universities has remained high, it's becoming increasingly difficult for professors to evolve the curriculum as fast as the industry is changing. I hear many complaints that what students are being taught is outdated by the time the semester ends. The curriculum doesn't even begin to capture the intersection of technology, data, communication and how quickly consumers are evolving.

So we need to get out of the office and start spending more time in the classroom. Every young person has the potential to be the next CMO. We have a front-row seat to this fast-changing industry, and it's time we start sharing the view.

In the past few years, there's also been continued growth and emergence of new skills and capabilities -- mobile, social, analytics, UX, just to name a few -- that are creating new marketing career paths.

Specialization is now more important than ever. But we have to balance the need for deep expertise with the goal of also developing well-rounded leaders who are equipped to lead through broad business challenges. It's on us as leaders to create opportunities for our people to gain new perspectives and experiences. And diversity must become an industry-wide priority.

I've never met a CMO who believes his or her marketing organization appropriately reflects the true diversity of the consumers it serves. So we have to push our teams, external agencies and partners to promote and embrace diversity of age, thought, race and ethnicity in all that we do.

It's easy to talk about how hard this is, but we really have no excuse. Together, we can make our profession more attractive and get started one person at a time.

Given everything that lies ahead, I recently reflected on my own ability to influence and drive change this year. And for me, it starts right at home.

The first thing I did was reinstate a regular series of coffee meetings with members of my team at Target, 15 to 20 people at a time. No agenda. Every question is fair game, and it's a chance to connect and collaborate. I stopped doing them for a while and personally felt the void.

I've also recommitted to visiting universities, sharing my experiences in the classroom and spending time with the new classes of interns at Target. Again, this is a time to share, a time to teach and, maybe selfishly, a time to listen and to learn. Without exception, I've left every session more refreshed, inspired and looking forward to the next.

Not long ago, after I gave a talk about how change happens when we start telling new stories, a young marketer approached me. The message struck a chord and she was moved. But it really made me think. Helping others see marketing differently and better understand the value we create starts with teaching, telling new stories and being proud of what we do. The core skills of great marketers provide a lifetime of opportunity to have meaningful impact.

I resolve this year and for years to come to help others discover the same joy and satisfaction that I have. If we want the next generation to truly understand the power and purpose of marketing, we've got to make time, because it's a great story and it's ours to tell.