Short CMO Tenures Reflective of Dysfunctional Companies

Keep Your Job by Managing CEO Expectations, Unifying Brand Image

By Published on .

Judy Shapiro
Judy Shapiro
Considering average the tenure of the C-suite, no one doubts that the shelf life of a CMO at about 26 months is noticeably less than that of a CIO, at about 38 months, or a CEO, at six years.

Some suggest that the CMO role is often cobbled together without clear funding or mandates. Former eBay and Best Buy CMO and Forbes columnist Mike Linton wrote recently that the new, shorter business cycles doom CMOs to shorter corporate lives. Another view holds that no CMO can effectively manage both short- and long-term objectives and is set up to fail from the start. Yet all agree that no matter the reason, marketing is an open book, and failures are there for all to see, often accelerating the demise of any CMO.

These explanations account for some of the answers, and yet they don't account for the fact that a person can fail in one organization and then thrive in another. Nor do they account for a program failing in one environment yet succeeding when implemented a few years or even months later. And they certainly don't account for the CMO outlier success stories either.

There was more going on here; I wanted to understand what that could be. At first I thought that the sheer level of expertise a CMO must master is daunting and a possible reason for the high failure rate. A CMO must be a technological wizard, creative genius, business maven, brilliant orator, inspirational team leader, innovation geek and executional marvel. No matter the depth and breadth of a CMO's skill set, it is often insufficient in pulling the "results rabbits" that a CEO thinks should be achievable out of a hat.

So again, while the "skill set" argument may account for the mortality of a few CMOs, it still seemed to miss the mark.

Then the answer came to me recently when I was having lunch with an ex-boss of mine, a CEO. We were talking about marketing strategies when it occurred to me how, in the years I had worked for him, I always tried to frame the marketing positioning around how he might express it, reflecting his unique outlook. Now that I am at a different company, my marketing tone has shifted to reflect that of my current company.

And that's when I understood why marketing chiefs often have a painfully short tenure in the corporate world. While most may not realize it, marketing magic or mayhem is but a reflection of what's going on in the company.

Once we realize that, the dynamics of the tenuous state of CMOs becomes quite clear. Everything a company does is reflected as brand image, and it falls upon marketing to combine all the refracted bits together into a cohesive whole. We must shape innovation, so that it can project a special sparkle for our brand, or we develop the right combination of features to create the best effects. But, despite the best efforts of a marketing team, the reflected image is often not the ideal the company has in mind. If a company is in chaos, it will inevitably be reflected in marketing, and that detracts from the painstakingly crafted image.

And that's when the inevitable happens. The "mirror," aka marketing, gets blamed for the flaws in the reflected image. And, as has been so often the case, it seems more efficient for companies to simply replace the mirror than to deal with the image the mirror was projecting.

So what's a CMO to do? I don't proclaim to have fool-proof plan, but here are a few proven tips that can help add months (maybe even years) to your tenure in the volatile marketing world.

1. Manage expectations of your company executives.
All, I repeat, all marketing programs now require an integrated approach that often touches every operational organization in a company. Without cross-corporate buy-in, the effectiveness of a program is diminished by whatever support the program does not have. For instance, a breakdown in customer support can render a program DOA. Aligning available resources to the results the company can expect is a key skill that a CMO can muster.

2. Be prepared to educate management on the potential outcomes of marketing programs -- good and bad.
Marketing programs include a spectrum of tactics, many of which require special handling because they can reflect flaws very visibly, given the high level of user-generated content out there. As a result, you should have clear plans for how to handle all types of reactions you might get to a company announcement, program or a news story. Marketing is about ensuring that your company's voice is the one that is most persuasive and consistent.

3. Be a force of change by providing clear marketplace feedback into a company's business plan.
The expanding array of marketing tools a CMO has at his or her disposal provides diverse and objective "lenses" on how users, customers, prospects and detractors view your company. That's valuable insight that, until now, required expensive research, lots of money and months to field. Use these insights to help drive a well-organized set of programs that improve/refine the different images being reflected.

4. Bring it all together to project the best image of a company.
Building on the point above, this is where the art of marketing is most powerfully expressed, because a skilled CMO can take all the reflective pieces, much like a kaleidoscope, to create a wonderful and singular image unique to your company. Make no mistake about it, though, this creative act is not a singular effort of the CMO but a reflection of the core image of the company. It may be the CMO who shapes and hones it, but its brilliance must be grounded in the company's very soul.

It may be tempting to think that too many organizations just want marketing to whip up images that bear no reflection of the company. But that thinking is shortsighted, not to mention defeatist. Companies really want the CMO to be the lead brand-image creator, the one who manages the reflective lights into a singular, powerful image in the marketplace. To succeed in that role, be prepared to drive your company's image as honestly and as powerfully as you can. Be ready to work hard to get management to understand the risks and rewards of engaging in this fluid, unpredictable world of social media. And recognize that to drive the most beautiful image for your company as possible, you need to be a creative force that helps your company become the image they imagine themselves to be.

Judy Shapiro is senior VP at Paltalk and has held senior marketing positions at Comodo, Computer Associates, Lucent Technologies, AT&T and Bell Labs. Her blog, Trench Wars, provides insights on how to create business value on the internet.
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