CFO as Marketing Chief? Maybe Not as Unusual as You Think (or Maybe So)

Marketers Weigh In

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Twitter CEO Dick Costolo
Twitter CEO Dick Costolo Credit: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

Why would Twitter put its chief financial officer in charge of marketing?

Even people with only a passing interest in advertising pondered that question when it emerged that Twitter CFO Anthony Noto had taken control of the company's marketing department. Even more eyebrow-raising is that it comes at a precarious time for Twitter, precisely because investors are nervous about user growth. The company's stock plunged roughly 20% on April 28 after reporting its weakest quarterly revenue growth since going public. Now would certainly be the time to have an experienced marketer in place to persuade more consumers to start tweeting, and to articulate why brands should advertise on Twitter over, say, Facebook.

"It's such an odd thing -- very unusual," said Kevin Keller, a marketing professor at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business. "Marketing is just not something a CFO is trained in. They don't have the instincts or experiences. … You need someone to inspire and lead people and do the right kinds of things to build incredible brands and customer loyalty."

An agency exec offered a much harsher perspective. "When finance people take over marketing, it means they're in trouble, it means they're getting desperate," this person said. "They've given up on power of creativity and marketing to drive their bottom line."

But the marketing chief at a fast-growing digital-media company said there might be some logic in giving Mr. Noto command of Twitter's marketers. "More and more marketing departments are not only held accountable for brand building but for driving revenue," this person said. "When you think about it, both of those responsibilities directly impact a company's profitability."

Twitter, which didn't respond to Ad Age's questions, has been searching for a CMO for months. In the meantime, a rotating cast of executives have overseen the company's relatively small marketing department, including Kevin Weil, senior VP-product.

Mr. Noto is certainly no slouch -- in the world of finance. His LinkedIn page lists two tours of duty at Goldman Sachs, a stint at Lehman brothers, nearly three years as the NFL's CFO and, in the '90s, a few years as a brand manager at Kraft. But he's probably best known, however unfairly, for a direct-message fail in which he tweeted obliquely about a potential Twitter acquisition.

Still, no one that Ad Age spoke with about Mr. Noto thinks what's happening at Twitter is emblematic of a trend. And it may be that Mr. Noto's new responsibility is a stopgap measure for CEO Dick Costolo.

Anthony Noto, Twitter's CFO
Anthony Noto, Twitter's CFO

"This is more about giving the department to a trusted lieutenant as they figure out what they want to do with it," said Gina Bianchini, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and CEO of professional networking startup Mightybell.

All the same, the move highlights the tech industry's product-first culture. "In Silicon Valley, a lot of companies don't value the power of building the brand," said Jim Stengel, former global marketing officer at Procter & Gamble. "They have a relentless focus on product and talent, but they think about the brand too late."

Mr. Keller pointed out that most current and past CMO rock stars -- Nike's Trevor Edwards, GE's Beth Comstock, American Express's John Hayes and Mr. Stengel -- work at customer-centric brands. "I'm not belittling CMOs in tech companies, but I think they haven't had the same opportunities," he said.

Contributing: Tim Peterson

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