The study was conducted by executive recruiter Spencer Stuart, Chicago, and the results shared exclusively with Advertising Age.
The implications of the revolving door range from shifting strategies and blurry brand images to shaky or shortened relationships with agencies and other marketing partners.
"The burn rate on these jobs is so short," said Joseph Tripodi, who joined Allstate Corp. as CMO last November.
CMOs oversee bulging marketing portfolios and often face inflated-some say unrealistic-expectations about their ability to quickly affect a company's fortunes. They can be among the first blamed for shortfalls in sales and are routinely sacrificed by CEOs looking to preserve their own jobs.
"Understand that the fuse is burning and the honeymoon doesn't last more than a few months," said Greg Welch, senior director at Spencer Stuart. Mr. Welch authored the study, which found the average tenure of a CMO is 23.6 months, compared to 50.6 months for CEOs.
Spencer Stuart's sampling of top marketers-including many of the top 100 advertisers-found only 14% of CMOs have been with their companies for more than three years, while nearly half were appointed in the last 12 months. Average turnover by category ranged from 10 months for apparel company CMOs to 34.8 months for financial-services marketers.
"It's really eye-opening," Mr. Welch said.
Major marketers including Burger King, Coca-Cola Co., Circuit City Stores and Yahoo! have all recruited new CMOs in the last year, he noted.
The result of turnover in the CMO job is "lack of learning [and] more randomness" to corporate strategies, said a CMO at a midsize package-goods company who asked not to be named. Despite pressure to prove return on investment, he said marketing remains one of the hardest areas in which to show results clearly.
"In today's business climate you are as good as your last business quarter. Long term brand building is difficult," said Joe Redling, CMO at Time Warner's America Online division, who has been with the company for five years. "A lot of CEOs lose focus on the long term."
who you gonna shoot?
And when initiatives don't deliver on expectations, CMOs can be the first ones in the crosshairs. "Sometimes it's just about who's below the firing line. So few companies are really successful in marketing. Then it's, who are you going to shoot?" said the package-goods CMO.
Companies need to do a better job recruiting CMOs who share their strategic visions and to get other departments heads involved in the hiring process, the package-goods CMO said. Top managers in areas such as sales, production and human resources often have no input on hiring, he said, but can play a part in forcing a chief marketer out. "Those people can't get you hired, but they can get you fired."
"If a marketer is doing it right, the first thing he's going to do is take a couple of months to listen and learn," said Carter Cast, Wal-Mart.com's senior VP-merchandising and marketing. Peer support is crucial to a marketer's ability to make significant changes that will produce results, rather than merely hiring a new agency to create new advertising.
But CMOs often try to make a mark by turning over department personnel and conducting agency reviews, looking for a quick fix instead of learning the business challenges and how to confront them.
"So much of how customers define brands now is beyond the 30-second spot," Mr. Tripodi said. It is necessary to add functions such as merchandising and customer service under the marketing umbrella, he said, because they have to work hand in hand with marketing.
He noted that among his initiatives after joining Allstate was to create a department focused on enhancing the customer experience. Home Depot even merged the chief marketing and chief merchandising officer positions.
As marketing has evolved to include disciplines such as online and multicultural, CMOs said they are asked to do more, often with less.
"A lot of it is the CMO managing expectations about what marketing can and can't do," Mr. Tripodi said. "The quick fix of putting in a new campaign or firing your agency is a naive view."
Some of the damage is self-inflicted; the Spencer Stuart study points out that many executives are good at marketing themselves into positions, only to find they're in over their heads, or that there's a cultural clash.
Marketing executives need to do their homework, said Wal-Mart's Mr. Cast. "There are certain holy grails to a corporate culture," he said. "When you go into a new company, it's wise to ask a lot of questions about what the company values."
Sometimes, new marketers arrive at a company so beaten down that any new advertising effort will yield results, but Mr. Cast warned that is often a temporary fix. "That might buy them some time, but they still have to get to know the business holistically," he said. "If they don't, it can come back to bite them."
Mr. Welch believes time and patience are key to slowing the turnover rate. "What we need," he said, "is a board and a CEO to say, `Give this CMO some time to be successful.'"
contributing: claire atkinson, alice z. cuneo, jack neff