ANA 2009

Transparency and Chemistry Key to CMO Longevity

Speros, Chow, Judge, Addicks Talk Shop at ANA Roundtable

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- Get a bunch of longtime chief marketing officers in a room and you'll hear one thing for certain: lots and lots of questions about staying power. The Association of National Advertisers CMO Roundtable this past weekend was no exception. The group, comprised of Best Buy's Barry Judge, General Mills' Mark Addicks, Con Agra's Joan Chow and Fidelity Investment's Jim Speros, underscored the importance of transparency, relationship building and making sure you're right for the job in the first place.

First of all, Mr. Speros said, you've got to realize that the clock is ticking. "Velocity is key, because you don't have a lot of time to make a difference," he said. "You have to get in very fast and make relationships with the right people, understand the hot-button issues."

Mr. Speros said it's important to have representatives from all the relevant teams -- distribution, product, regulatory, legal -- and make sure they all have a seat at the table. Within that dialogue, he added, great CMOs can be indispensable as "the voice of the consumer within your organization."

Con Agra's Ms. Chow said she's also worked hard to support transparency within her department, keeping executives abreast of what's going on, and holding open meetings. "Our CEO [Gary Rodkin] didn't want to hear about commercials by seeing them on TV," she said of the state of affairs upon her arrival almost three years ago. Ms. Chow responded by setting an hourly meeting with Mr. Rodkin each week, giving a list of high-level projects or ideas. Her team initially worried that projects would be killed before completion, but it's been more about keeping the head honcho up to speed. "Even if he disagrees, he allows us to overrule him," the CMO said. And it's helped open up the conversation elsewhere in the c-suite.

Ms. Chow also said she gave Con Agra's CFO an open invitation to attend her meetings. He eventually joined them for a day in the field, and has now become a key advocate. When the marketing department started presenting social-media ideas, the executives asked to be trained in Twitter and Facebook. She also opened her doors to criticism. After finding an office freezer full of competitors' products, she started asking people why they weren't eating Healthy Choice, and why they hadn't told anyone before.

"If you can't inspire employees to be your brand champions, then you can't inspire anyone else," she said. Following sweeping quality improvements, Ms. Chow has conducted follow-up freezer inspections. While "there are still a few stragglers," she's helped spur a number of conversions.

All four CMOs stopped short of saying that the office should have full ownership of the P&L. While it's possible at package food companies, it would be unrealistic at Best Buy or Fidelity. Instead, Ms. Chow said, "You have to be accountable for your company's investment in marketing."

Mr. Addicks of General Mills took it a step further. "I see myself as the person who has to be a stopping point on a brand if it's not doing well," he said, adding that as CMO he also needs to know the areas of opportunity for General Mills.

Ultimately, the ability to keep a CMO job is in the marketer's own hands. But an important part of that is making sure you land in the right place. "Sometimes it's a matter of chemistry," Mr. Speros said, adding that cultural fits are important to evaluate before walking through the door. And ask yourself hard questions. "Ask if you're qualified, credible" for the position, he said.

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