Don't Call Me CMO: Top Marketers Say Job Has Evolved Beyond Title

Chow, Quinn, Comstock Join Great Debate About How to Define Broadening Role

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What's in a name? If you are a chief marketing officer today, plenty. The job title means different things across companies and industries. And now some top execs are suggesting that the "marketing" moniker should be scrapped entirely as CMOs take on greater responsibilities.

The issue of how to characterize CMOs' growing responsibilities was a theme at the ANA Masters of Marketing conference.
The issue of how to characterize CMOs' growing responsibilities was a theme at the ANA Masters of Marketing conference. Credit: Courtesy of 2013 ANA Masters of Marketing Conference

Look no further than the largest annual meeting of the Association of National Advertisers, which was held in October and is called, ironically enough, the "Masters of Marketing" conference. "I wonder if in five to 10 years whether we should be called chief marketing officers anymore," ConAgra Foods CMO Joan Chow said during a roundtable discussion at the event. "Consumers don't like to be marketed to. We should be thinking of ourselves as chief value officers."

In another presentation, General Electric CMO Beth Comstock said her job was as much a "chief growth officer as anything." Likewise, Walmart CMO Stephen Quinn said that CMOs really need to be chief innovation officers.

While the comments might have been half in jest and mostly an intellectual exercise, they are a reflection of a hard truth: In many cases, CMOs are taking on new tasks overseeing everything from data to product innovation. "It's not just about integrated-marketing programs," said Caren Fleit, a senior client partner in the New York office of executive-recruiting firm Korn/Ferry. "It's about transforming how business is done." She added that CMOs must move beyond simply being the voice of the customer to handling "enterprise -- wide leadership, driving change and being connected very directly to business results."

Ongoing debate
While the CMO's responsibilities are broadening in general, job descriptions vary widely, unlike a chief financial officer, whose role is fairly similar no matter where the person works, Ms. Fleit said, so companies and recruiters must clearly define the role before filling it. "Then you can determine what kind of marketing officer it is regardless of what it is called." One of her clients recently changed the CMO title to "chief commercial strategist."

The debate about the CMO's role, responsibilities and the title itself is not entirely new. The subject has been discussed for years in marketing circles. In 2006, Forbes published an article titled "Who Needs a CMO Anyway?" by two partners of marketing-strategy firm Reason Inc. The authors noted that the CMO became popular during the dot-com boom. "And like so many things during that period, it was driven by a preoccupation with appearances more than by practical need," they wrote. If a company does have a CMO in its ranks, "the position must be invested with responsibilities, authority and accountability that befits a C-level title," including holding the person accountable for meeting corporate margin goals.

Look in the mirror
The debate raged on at this year's ANA, where each speaker seemed to offer his or her own -- and sometimes varying -- job descriptions. At GE, marketing is a "consolidated effort," Ms. Comstock said during her presentation, noting the company has merged its marketing, sales and communications teams. "A holistic experience around our customer is what we strive for," she said. And to drive better innovations, GE marketers are brought in at early stages of product development.

As CMOs take on new roles, they must adapt on the fly, Ms. Comstock said. Good marketers can handle an ambiguous role. "They are comfortable pulling pieces together," she said. "They are comfortable playing the integrator role … [and] they are increasingly comfortable with data."

The role is no longer defined by the quality of creative, Walmart's Mr. Quinn said. CMOs must encourage companies to "look in the mirror and make sure we really do have the ability to innovate like our companies and customers are demanding." He added that while media and data are critical, they are not the sole markers of the role, either, though he did acknowledge the ever-growing role of data in marketing.

In an interview after the talk, Mr. Quinn clarified that he was speaking more rhetorically than lobbying for an actual title change. Then again, he's also made clear that he sees marketing as unavoidably connected to the merchandising effort. And realistically, given that Walmart sees more than 60% of U.S. consumers walk through its doors each week, there's very little it can do in media to reach more people than it reaches through its stores. For that reason, Walmart actually has two C-level executives with the word "marketing" in their titles. Mr. Quinn reports to U.S. Chief Merchandising and Marketing Officer Duncan Mac Naughton.

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