The alarmingly brief average tenure of a CMO has shrunk even further, according to a new survey from Spencer Stuart, down from a sobering 23.6 months in 2004 and 23.5 months last year to an even tighter 23.2 months this year. The result took aback even Greg Welch, CMO practice leader at the recruiter.
'A bit surprised'
"The 23.6 we saw in year one [of the study], we thought that was going to be a fluke," he said. "This year we were a bit surprised to see it take a dip."
There's no easy answer to why the window of opportunity slams so fast for the CMO. But marketing executives believe that while the pressure to perform is exacerbated by the short-term demands of Wall Street, they are also hindered by lack of access to CEOs. Moreover, the small pool of the best and the brightest who are sagely navigating the changing media environment are in demand and prime for poaching.
"The shorter tenure is in part a reflection of the change from failing traditional-marketing approaches to less-defined and more dynamic approaches," said Jeff Bell, who jumped from Chrysler Group to become corporate VP-global marketing of Microsoft's Interactive Entertainment Business this month. "Clearly the skill set of CMOs is changing from 'TV, TV and more TV' to interactive media. ... As the world of marketing completes this transition, the tenure will stabilize."
Revolving door executive suite
Whatever the reason, the short leash is not just worrisome for the job holder, but also for brands suffering a revolving door of top marketers. Ian Beavis, VP-marketing at Kia Motors America, said, "Marketing's job is to generate revenue for companies. In mature organizations you need professional managers responsible for short-term and long-term decisions and have the tenure to take responsibility for them. Without that, there's a lack of accountability in the organization."
And cautious brand stewards aren't necessarily the best brand stewards. "If you're a CMO and you know chances are you won't be there long," he said, "you are not going to make the right decisions for the company long term."
In Spencer Stuart's original 2004 study, 41% of CMOs were appointed in the prior 12 months and only 14% of marketing heads had been with their firms for more than three years. Today, 53% of the executives have been in their jobs for less than a year. But the good news is that nearly a quarter have hung on for three or more, indicating that a corporate form of natural selection may be in play.
Beating the odds
Two years ago Burger King's Russ Klein was a poster child for the CMO hot seat, along with Starbucks' Anne Saunders. Today, not only are they still the marketing chiefs at their companies, but Mr. Klein and Ms. Saunders have added new titles to reflect added global responsibilities. Mr. Klein was promoted to president-global marketing innovation and Ms. Saunders to senior VP-global brand strategy.
"There was a bull's-eye on me. Look where the brand is now," said Mr. Klein, recalling the May 3, 2004, Advertising Age cover story that declared "CMOs Under Fire."
So how does one beat the odds to become a so-called Super CMO?
"We believe the new super CMO and examples on this list were true general managers before they took the CMO role," said Mr. Welch. "The complexity of this job, the ability to be board-savvy and work cross-functionally effectively are the attributes of new CMO," he said. "That may be the new model of CMO that can make it last and make it work."
At least a dozen of the executives in the sample were general managers prior to their CMO posts and 20% had been a general manager at some point in their earlier careers.
Adapting to change
Mike Fasulo, CMO at Sony Electronics for the past 14 months, said, "It's about being able to adapt to change. ... How do I achieve the expectation and deliverables that our executive board and shareholders are expecting and at the same time have the freedom to innovate for our true marketing folks?"
"I've been here five years and I don't go to lunches and I don't go to dinners and I don't play golf. My head is down," said Peter Weedfald, senior VP-strategic marketing and new media for Samsung Electronics America, who said that CMOs are "consistently marginalized" by CEOs. "I'm not saying I'm better than anyone else ... [but] when I sit with the C-level executives, they work the same way I work."
"C-level nomads are really a reflection of what's going on in professional life universally," said Claude Singer, partner, Lippincott Mercer. "A couple of generations ago you had more time to strike that balance between maintaining the course and making course adjustments," he said, comparing today's executives to sports cars. "You're highly visible and if you do well there's a great upside and if you mishandle the machine or take it in a different direction you could be in trouble."
Consider yourself warned.
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Jean Halliday and Alice Z. Cuneo contributed to this report.