What Facebook needs in its next CMO—and it's not a savior who will change everything
Facebook's search is underway for a new chief marketing officer, and whoever the new hire is, that executive will confront a raft of challenges at a brand that seems to thrive in chaos.
The social network’s next brand leader will undoubtedly have to be comfortable in the hot seat and align closely with the values already ingrained by the longtime leadership. And while it may be tempting to think that a new CMO could totally remake the brand or save the company, that’s unlikely, according to Belinda Smith, a veteran marketing leader who has worked at Electronic Arts and AT&T.
“They don’t want to change,” Smith says. “They want to make their issues go away, they want people to leave them alone, but they don’t want to change.”
Facebook declined to comment for this story. But Smith believes that the company is looking for a CMO who is on board with its take-it-or-leave-it approach, where executives listen to partners and advertisers, but are reluctant to adjust to appease them. Facebook explains its positions on topics like offensive speech and brand safety, but it resists changing course based on outsider feedback.
Smith looks at Facebook’s top leadership—CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, and Head of Global Business Solutions Carolyn Everson—and sees a tight-knit core that has guided the company for more than a decade.
“The biggest thing that they need for the longevity of that role is someone who really understand the vision and the values [of Facebook],” Smith says. “And someone who aligns really well and is already on board with where the company is going. I don’t think they necessarily need an outside agitator to push them into new areas.”
A challenging environment
Facebook is at an inflection point, besieged by politicians who consider it a danger to democracy at home and abroad. Civil rights groups have pressured advertisers to rethink their spending on the platform over its hate speech policies. And there are rivals emerging like TikTok, which, despite its Chinese ownership, has captivated America’s youth.
Facebook has a dynamic business with non-stop product updates that borrow from the latest trends in social media and technology. Since May, it has launched a TikTok-like video feature on Instagram, called Reels, and a video-chat product called Rooms. Facebook also owns Oculus, the virtual reality platform, builds hardware like the Portal, and has media services like Watch video and IGTV. And lately it has pushed deeper into e-commerce with services like Facebook Shops.
The company is making more money than ever, generating $18.7 billion in revenue in the second quarter, a year-over-year increase of 11 percent. It's hard to convince a company to make too many changes, when what it's doing seems to be working.
Current CMO Antonio Lucio announced his departure last week, and plans to stay until Sept. 18 to help with the search for his replacement. When Lucio joined the company in 2018, he said he would be the one to help Facebook become less reactive when dealing with outside turmoil. He was never quite successful.
Lucio’s biggest initiatives were leading a brand redesign with new logos and more unity across what Facebook calls its “family of apps”—Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger. Lucio also led a Super Bowl ad campaign this year.
Some experts say that the potential of what the new CMO is able to accomplish falls with Facebook’s management. Lucio was an experienced marketer with stints at Visa, HP and Procter & Gamble under his belt, yet at Facebook, he was reporting to the chief product officer, says Kimberly Whitler, associate professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, noting that CMOs typically report to CEOs.
“Part of what [CMOs] need from marketing to be successful is leadership at the top to understand marketing and be able to leverage it,” says Whitler. “You can bring in the best person, but if you don’t use the person in the right way, you won’t get good results.”
Facebook outlined the technical requirements of its next CMO in a job listing which notes that the company has a marketing budget of more than $500 million a year. The CMO needs to have at least 15 years of high-level experience and will run Facebook’s massive promotional events, product launches, ad campaigns and brand development.
While most brands are looking for marketers with a data-driven, performance background, Facebook’s need is different, according to Jay Haines, founder of Grace Blue, an executive search firm that specializes in media and marketing.
“All of the work we’re being asked to do at the moment is very ROI, very direct response-driven, performance marketing-centric work,” he says. “Facebook has the opposite problem—they have a classic brand problem.”
Haines says a CMO who understands how to shape a brand narrative would be beneficial for Facebook, which has had numerous brand image problems as it seeks to restore public trust. In addition, Facebook may want someone who has professional experience dealing with similar brand problems.
The call for diversity
“This person needs to have the muscle memory of having dealt with a difficult brand challenge previously,” says Haines. “This is not one for the faint-hearted, they need the experience of managing an iconic brand in need.”
Of course, Facebook notes that it is an “equal opportunity employer,” but it remains to be seen how highly Facebook will prioritize diverse candidates. Many leading voices in technology, media and advertising have been calling for more representation in the top ranks of companies, not just Facebook.
As part of the advertising boycott in July, civil rights groups demanded Facebook recruit a Black executive with experience in racial justice issues. While the new CMO does not necessarily have to fit that criteria, Facebook has established a team to look for an exec with civil rights on their resume.
“You hope they would find some non-white person to fill that role, and I would hope they would find a black woman to fill that role,” Smith says. “There’s no one way to be a CMO, and we have this image in our heads that being the CMO is coming in as the white knight and doing the Fernando [Machado] and being creative and playing with all of your messaging, or, you know, completely turning the ship around and saving the business.
“But that’s one way to be a CMO,” Smith says. “There are many, many, many variations.”