CMO Award Winners Name the Top Challenges Coming in 2017

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The CMO Awards honored 40 CMOs in 10 categories.
The CMO Awards honored 40 CMOs in 10 categories. Credit: The CMO Club

Last night The CMO Club honored 40 CMOs in 10 award categories, ranging from Marketing Innovation to Social Responsibility, from Customer Experience to Creativity and Storytelling.

The variety of the annual awards -- now in their fifth year -- reflects the fundamental truth that the CMO role is ever evolving, and requires both in-the-moment practicality and see-around-the-corner vision. Focusing on the second component, I asked 15 of the 40 award winners to share their thoughts on the challenges that await their peers in 2017.

What I heard was initially perplexing but ultimately revealing. Under siege for years to deliver more (awareness, leads, sales, experiences, data, stories, LTV, KPIs, etc.) with less (budget, time, staff and patience), many successful CMOs have come to terms with the demands of their jobs simply by embracing the and over the or. Dichotomy is suddenly a friendly state of mind: a place where CMOs find the courage to boldly plot out their biggest challenges for the year ahead.

"Our challenge will lie in how well CMOs respond not just to change but to the sometimes more uncomfortable position of ambiguity," said Gina McDuffie, CMO of production equipment company VER.

1. Nurturing IQ and EQ

With mar-tech budgets rivaling their IT counterparts, you might think the CMO's job is reserved for the left-brained these days. Lee Applbaum, the CMO of Patron Spirits, on the other hand, fears that focusing on short-term digital campaign metrics is a form of myopia that "loses the longer-term implications around building brand equity and affinity."

"Today's CMO must possess the fundamental 'IQ' skills necessary to execute the job technically, but even broader 'EQ' skills to manage the organization -- particularly at the senior management and board level -- so that it understands that building a sustainable, world-class brand often means making short-term sacrifices," Applbaum said.

2. Driving sales and brand

The challenge of driving short-term results while simultaneously building one's brand almost dates back to the caveman's first marketing plan. What's new is the array of options to consider. "We are clear on our goals and tactics for direct marketing and our owned assets, but the rest of the landscape is changing so rapidly we will need to take some bets," said Melinda Welsh, CMO, Home and Auto Finance, JP Morgan Chase. Anthony Christie, CMO of Level 3 Communications, frames this challenge as "accelerating quality top line growth," with "quality" referring to the need to attract the right type of customer.

3. Balancing the science and the art

"Much of the marketing conversation over the last several years has centered around data and analytics -- the 'science' of marketing," said Rich Honiball, CMO of the Navy Exchange. Though Honiball recognizes the importance of analytics, he advises CMOs not to "lose sight of the 'art' of marketing: not only the creative ways in which we deliver our message, but what the message is in the first place." Patti Newcomer, VP, marketing, Intuit ProConnect Group, agrees that cutting through creatively in every channel is essential. "I think we might be losing sight of that as our key challenge in the midst of all of the technology challenges that we're all grappling with," she said.

4. Connecting innovation and culture

Increasingly, CMOs see themselves not just as a spark for innovation in product development and marketing but also as agents of change across their organizations. Claudia Schiepers, CMO at Greystone & Co, describes this dual challenge as the need to come up with "Innovation strategies," adding, "How can we make sure that everyone in the company genuinely feels like they are an active participant in the organization's innovation activities." Paula Puleo Blomquist, CMO at Eyemart Express, sees the job evolving to be "more about change/culture management than channel strategy development and execution."

5. Mining data and thinking creatively

"Because there's so much data available, we're often overwhelmed," said Arra Yerganian, CMO at Sutter Health. To overcome this challenge, Yerganian believes great marketers will use "a sixth sense that helps them find and drive forward ideas that resonate with the consumer in a new, authentic way." Dan Marks, CMO, Hancock & Whitney Bank, echoed this sentiment: "There has never been a better time to be a CMO with the tools available like design thinking and better analytical capabilities to speak directly to customers and improve the customer experience," he said.

6. Owning both marketing and customer experience

Long at the mercy of less-than-stellar product quality or customer service, some CMOs are eager to take ownership of the entire customer experience, starting first with better employee training. "There's too much emphasis right now on technology and channel, and not enough being done to ensure a proper carry through with respect to employee training," said Steven Handmaker, CMO at Chicago-based Assurance. "If we portray one experience and deliver another, our brands can be fatally harmed."

7. Weighing data and strategy

Alma Derricks, VP of sales and marketing at Cirque du Soleil, believes marketers need to "defend themselves against the growing mythology of Big Data as a silver bullet to customer-facing issues; data is a tool, not a replacement for a coherent go-to-market strategy." Ann Davids, SVP & CMO of Direct General Insurance concurs: "I struggle with how much of this technology we really need to consume and at what time, as to not over invest in new emerging [tech] when you can wait and benefit from others R&D investments and experiences."

8. Leading for today and tomorrow

Lest you thought that CMO challenges aren't all that tough, consider the fact that many CMOs see anticipating the future as a critical part of their job. "Those who are following today's trends may realize they've arrived at the party a little late," explains Dara Royer, CMO at the non-profit Mercy Corp. Elissa Fink, CMO, Tableau Software, put it this way: "A very large challenge is figuring out how to move forward in big, transformational ways without sacrificing the little, incremental improvements that are often a huge portion of ongoing success." Or, as Jane Wakely, CMO, Global Chocolate at Mars, offerred in conclusion: "Companies and brands need to keep the tension of learning from and honoring the past whilst being agile and entrepreneurial to embrace the future."

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