It's small price to pay, he says. "Where else can you have, in one morning session, two hours with Jim Collins, who wrote the book 'Good to Great'; then talk to Martha Stewart about what she'd do differently; and then Jim Kiltz, who has turned around three companies, about how he views marketing?" Mr. Malcolm asks.
In this case, the connections are through an exclusive membership organization called Marketing 50, or M50, which has about 50 members, all CMOs from noncompeting companies. The return on investment has been strong enough to keep Mr. Malcolm going back for five years. What motivates him and thousands of other CMOs is the need for professional development in a position with a notoriously short average tenure and overwhelming demands. Professional groups of varying size, intent, cost and effectiveness have sprung up to meet that need.
"I've been able to connect locally here in Atlanta with a number of other heads of marketing or CMOs," says Jeff Caswell, VP-marketing at Danone Waters of America, who came across the website of the CMO Club and joined in July. "Sharing ideas with other heads of marketing across various industries is certainly appealing." CMOs can also share best practices and even resources that prove valuable.
Membership in the CMO Club is $295 for the year (not counting the costs of hosted dinners in various cities), making a chance to try the association inexpensive compared with most events and conferences.
But price and affordability are relative, even when the ticket to entry is much higher. "What's a day rate of a senior consultant?" Mr. Malcolm asks. "Probably $15,000. What's the cost of bringing in Martha Stewart or [management expert] Jim Kiltz for two hours of consulting? I can get access for a day to 20 people who are facing similar issues, trying different things, and pick their brains." And $50,000 is only a tiny slice of what he refers to as his $2 billion-plus annual marketing spend. Just a few big ideas a year provide an easy return.
Whether the price is $50,000 or $295, organizations devoted to CMO networking appear to be growing. The CMO Club claims a website with 730 members; a newsletter with 1,800 "head of marketing" subscribers; and about a dinner a month that rotates among different cities, each drawing about two dozen local CMOs. The CMO Council, which started in 2001, boasts 3,500 members globally. However, given that there are about 12,000 publicly held corporations in the U.S. alone, there seem to be opportunities for expansion.
A key draw of membership organizations for CMOs is ending the professional isolation and insulation that many executives find sets in. "I believe CMOs are often solo warriors within companies," says Hope Frank, CMO of Olevia. "We don't have peers in our own organization. In order to have high-quality communications with your like-minded peers, you have to get out of your organization."
Ms. Frank, also a member of the CMO Club, plans business trips around the dinners. The club's founder, Pete Krainik, has heard from members that they don't care so much about the keynotes as about spending time with one another.
Not all gatherings are so formal. John Coleman, CEO of Portland, Maine-based advertising agency the Via Group, hosts a monthly gathering -- a salon, he calls it -- in Manhattan. "I found I was losing the opportunity to have conversations [about topics] other than business and my family," he says. So Coleman started organizing evening discussions with wide-ranging topics and invited maybe a dozen different top marketing people to each.
Julie Roehm, formerly senior VP of Wal-Mart, is a consultant who has attended a couple of the salons. "The closest thing I'd liken them to is if you've ever been in a book club with people you respect who are intelligent and well-read," she says.
Mr. Coleman says the attendees can become a loose-knit "information network to bounce ideas off people." One thing he has done is keep his own business marketing out of the mix, and that apparently is an important factor in the success of CMO groups.
"I've gone to a number of conferences that were positioned as CMO summits," says Steve Rotterdam, senior VP-sales and marketing at DC Comics. "I tend not to go unless I have a specific reason to. I find myself pitched to left and right, and I've found that in the 'topics' and various presentations, everyone is selling something one way or another."
"You always pay a high fee," says Richard Smith, who founded and then sold World 50, which runs the M50 group. Either there is a high ticket price or "you pay it through solicitation," he says. That has made funding organizations a tricky issue. Unless support comes completely from annual dues, as with the M50, there will be some degree of sponsorship and potential vendor involvement.
"We had a great quote from one of our founding members," says David Wilkie, managing director of World 50. "He said, 'I'm tired of sneezing and getting a year's worth of Kleenex.' If you want to make the environment safe, you want to make even the water cooler safe."
"A lot of [organizations] are tied to their models of making money," Mr. Krainik says. "I'm working through the monetization process right now. The key question is: How do I make money without turning it into a sponsor-driven environment?" He says the litmus test of any approach is to "sit in a room of CMOs, explain it, and no one raises their eyebrows."
Another potential drawback of such groups is when they become overly focused on job networking. If an executive is in the market, a group dedicated to career opportunities may be attractive. But that can be as single-minded and sales-oriented as attending a meeting devoted to vendor pitches.
"While that might be good for my career, I'm quite happy where I am," says Courteney Monroe, exec VP-consumer marketing at HBO, who has turned down many offers to join CMO membership organizations.
"[Some organizations] position themselves to the senior marketers as very specifically a networking group," says Brad McLane, a managing director of executive-recruitment firm Russell Reynolds Associates, which has sponsored a number of CMO groups. "[But] they seem to be -- and they have to watch this in terms of their positions -- outplacement organizations."
The right environment
There are some other major factors to consider when choosing a CMO group. Some CMOs find that speaking with peers from their own industries offers the greatest chance for learning. However, the presence of competitors makes it more difficult for executives to drop their guards and get the help or insight that might be available, and many of the groups emphasize non-competitive companies in any gathering.
Another question to consider is who creates the content. In some cases the centerpiece is a discussion, as with Via's salons. The CMO Council, which is owned by communications-services firm GlobalFluency, does research and presents its findings, which at times disagree with the views of the group's sponsors.
"We've had situations where someone said, 'We'd rather you didn't say that,' and we said, 'That's what the research showed,'" says Liz Miller, VP-programs and operations. "We had some unhappy people after."
But better some unhappy vendors than unhappy CMOs. After all, if they leave, the party is going to get awfully quiet.