Death of the Rock Star CMO

Roehm, Martin and DeVard Were Change Agents -- and That Might Have Cost Them Their Jobs

By Published on .

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- So you wanna be a rock 'n' roll marketer? Just pick up a gig at a troubled Fortune 500 company that thinks it needs a change agent. Be quick
Kerri Martin (top) abruptly left her position as director-brand innovation of Volkswagen of America earlier this month (she is shown here onstage with a guitar at last year's Idea Conference). Jerri Devard (middle) suddenly resigned as senior VP-brand management and marketing communications at Verizon Communications last week. Julie Roehm (bottom) was fired from her position as Wal-Mart's senior VP for global marketing communications in December.
Kerri Martin (top) abruptly left her position as director-brand innovation of Volkswagen of America earlier this month (she is shown here onstage with a guitar at last year's Idea Conference). Jerri Devard (middle) suddenly resigned as senior VP-brand management and marketing communications at Verizon Communications last week. Julie Roehm (bottom) was fired from her position as Wal-Mart's senior VP for global marketing communications in December.
with a quote; cruise the conference circuit; fire your agency; and say you want a revolution that, instead of being televised, plays out on any number of sexy new digital channels. Sit back and watch the awards, press clippings and speech invitations flow in.

Grim moment
But beware the comedown. The rejection of new methods, the sales slump, the angry lobbyists who don't like the marketing you weren't aiming at them anyway, the griping from ego-weary colleagues, all culminating in that ultimate of corporate indignities: the grim moment when you're told to collect your belongings and escorted to the door by a security guard.

Over the past month, some version of this has played out at companies such as Wal-Mart, Volkswagen, Verizon and Coca-Cola. There's enough burning out and fading away among marketing rock stars to show the limits of careers built on bold statements and media attention.

A quartet of high-powered, outspoken women -- Julie Roehm, Kerri Martin, Jerri DeVard and Mary Minnick -- all fell (or at least, in Ms. Minnick's case, hit the proverbial ceiling) despite, or perhaps even as a result of, crafting images as mediagenic change agents shaking up moribund institutions.

Big results -- or else
There were other factors, too, such as the tension between the long time needed to orchestrate brand makeovers and public companies' need for quick turnarounds and quarterly results. But one thing is clear in these days of playa hatin': Big-name marketers everywhere should be on high alert, especially if they're not getting big results.

"What's true for the brand is true for the management," said Robert Passikoff, founder-president of the consultancy Brand Keys and author of "Predicting Market Success." "Awareness does not mean profitability. None of these people got to where they are without doing something that was successful, but often that success sets up expectations that go unmet."

The marketing world's celebrity culture has developed as the practice of reaching consumers has grown more complex and the marketing function has been accorded more respect and responsibility. Once just in charge of getting ads made and boosting awareness, top marketing executives today are responsibile for business outcomes such as sales and market share, an increase in accountability that's made the average tenure ever shorter and desperate attempts at easy answers all the more common.

Known change agent
For a struggling company, the quickest of fixes, save for calling an agency review, is to hire a known change agent who can help bail out a beleaguered organization, a way of thinking that's earned its share of criticism. In a prescient blog post from last April, Guy Kawasaki, the former Apple evangelist, listed the rock-star myth as one of marketing's biggest lies: "Nothing like setting a person up for failure by creating excessive expectations," he wrote.

Some of the first cracks in the rock-star system started to show during the Julie Roehm implosion, that well-worn tale of an attractive nontraditional thinker who went to Arkansas to help modernize Wal-Mart's rube marketing operation, only to be cast out herself in a swirl of unofficial allegations that she did everything from sleeping with a subordinate to violating ethics policies -- all of which Ms. Roehm has repeatedly denied. Whatever you believe she did or didn't do, there's no doubt her fame did her no favors in Bentonville.

Then came -- and went -- Kerri Martin. The woman who built up BMW Mini on a wave of inexpensive PR stunts arrived at struggling Volkswagen last year and almost immediately recruited the hottest ad agency to do a range of spots that focused not on the VW badge but on the specific marques -- Jetta, Golf and so on -- and their target audiences. It looked like a smart move, and the spots from Crispin Porter & Bogusky did well on the buzz and awareness fronts. But when sales didn't spike as VW had hoped, Ms. Martin -- a regular on the aforementioned conference circuit -- was fired, having presented herself as an obvious scapegoat for the automakers' ongoing woes.

Martin and Roehm
Ms. Martin and Ms. Roehm, in particular, were at least partially victims of confused corporate cultures that, a bit like Marty McFly, were trapped between the past and the future. Both Wal-Mart and VW are deeply troubled companies that have been extraordinarily fickle when it comes to the notion of change, talking about vast overhauls one day only to go back on them the next. That makes things tough on an outsider.

"It's very difficult to come in from the outside and change things," said executive recruiter Kurt O'Hare. "When they enter a new culture, they don't have the political capital to make the global changes they were brought in to make. When you don't know the history and the culture, there are minefields and banana peels everywhere that are hard to avoid."

Ms. Roehm, who didn't respond to a set of e-mailed questions for this story, acknowledged Wal-Mart's troubles in an interview in December. "The history books are littered with companies who sought change and then decided they didn't want it -- that's their prerogative. I still don't know specifically what happened there."

DeVard and Minnick
Verizon's Ms. DeVard, one of the marketing business's top African-American executives, and Coke's Ms. Minnick went out differently. The two recent Wall Street Journal Women to Watch both left on their own, but not before slamming their heads against ceilings no less easy to break because of their fame. Both were recently passed over in organizational reshuffling, which, according to people familiar with both women, contributed to their departures.

Officially, Ms. DeVard said she decided to step down because of the wear of a long commute, and Ms. Minnick said she was leaving Coke to pursue personal and professional goals in the U.K.

The fact that all four were women also had people scratching their heads about whether female execs draw more scrutiny than their male counterparts. Anne Bologna, founding partner-president at New York agency Toy, said that's likely not the case. "It probably isn't a gender thing," she said, "except that generally speaking, women are clear communicators and find it easier to be outspoken."

Out but not down
No one's betting against a rebound for any of these ousted execs. Even Ms. Roehm, who exited amid intense rumor-mongering, is known to be sought-after by a wide variety of companies. And Ms. Martin could re-enter the scene with a job at Hyundai. Hyundai Chief Operating Officer Steve Wilhite said she's not a candidate for the VP-marketing job, adding: "I am just talking to her at this time."

What remains to be seen is just how they'll deal with the spotlight, especially if prospective employers begin to take Mr. Kawasaki's practical advice to heart: "Forget the rock star: Hire good, bright people who want to prove themselves, not live off the past."

~ ~ ~
Alice Z. Cuneo, Jean Halliday, Kate Macarthur contributed to this report.
In this article:
Most Popular