It's Time for Media CMOs to Step Up and Lead

More Digital Disruption Is Coming and CMOs Need to Take Charge

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Imagine you're a media company CMO and you have to figure out what to do in 2015. You're probably like the 93% of executives of all industries Forrester surveyed early in 2014 who told us their industries would suffer digital disruption in the year. Now the year is over and you realize that by and large, you haven't moved the ball as far as you would have hoped. You look around and see that digital disruptors like Uber and Square are transforming staid industries such as transportation and banking, and you realize that if those businesses are being disrupted, then the media biz is surely due for another round. Just like Spotify is disrupting iTunes, which disrupted Napster. That makes YouTube Music Key round four, depending on how you count.

How to prepare? You take an inventory of your resources. Your CEO is committed to leading in digital, but uncertain exactly what to commit to. In fact, in our surveys of all industries, just 39% of CEOs believe they own the company's digital strategy. There is talk of hiring a chief digital officer, that heroic figure who comes in on a white horse to save the day, but you know it won't save the day at all -- it will only add to the fumbling over executive decision making.

Looking ahead to 2015, you see that your customers will embrace even more technologies, ranging from Apple Watch to Amazon Echo, which will create additional opportunities either to deliver new content experiences or fail to reach your customers on an even grander scale. And meanwhile, your marketing agencies and partners all claim they can build whatever app you need and design whatever new user experience your customer is ready for -- a seductive promise that nearly absolves you of the need to make your own decisions.

The stakes have never been higher, the opportunity has never been greater, and the risk of doing nothing is only growing by the day. What's a CMO to do?

Step in and lead, that's what. It's time for CMOs to step up and insist, as holders of the keys to the customer, that further digital delay hurts everyone in every department. It's time to be a strategic advisor to the CEO on the digitally disrupted customer experience. It's time to stop making technology decisions behind the CIO's back, but it's also time to insist that the CIO make technology investments based on customer priorities rather than internal inertia.

It's not just pent-up frustration making me say that. That's the consensus view of our team of analysts who work with CMOs. In our annual compilation of predictions for the coming year, we overwhelmingly agreed that the time for this leadership is not only right, it's nearly past due. And in the realm of the media CMO, where disruption has been an ongoing experience for more than a decade, it's long overdue.

That's why at the head of companies currently leading media disruption you will typically find a strategic CMO who is not only representing the company's party line to the media, but articulating the company's strategy internally and externally. Pam Levine, CMO at HBO has been front and center during 2014, explaining to the world why it makes sense for the company to license older shows to Amazon Prime. But more recently, as HBO stunned its partners by announcing it would go direct in 2015, Levine hasn't been heard from. If the company is not ready to let executives speak publicly, it's at least a good time for Levine to evaluate her role both inside and outside of the firm. Is she taking orders or is she contributing to them?

More broadly, all media CMOs need to ask if they are mouthpieces or strategic decision makers. For most media companies, the CMO is still the former. Consider last year's announcement of the appointment of Allison Gollust as CMO at CNN Worldwide, wherein her role was specifically described as a spokesperson and communications manager. No mention of strategic director of efforts to recapture CNN's dwindling relationship with viewers. That role instead went just this month to CNN's first-ever chief product officer, Alex Wellen.

Disruption does this to companies, creating opportunities for some people to step forward and serve the customer more fully while relegating others to less strategic roles. Not every CMO can take this more strategic path, since they are limited or bolstered by their personal skills and corporate circumstances. But for those who do, the personal rewards will be significant. Consider the recent appointment of National Geographic Channels CMO Courtney Monroe to CEO earlier this year.

Yes, 2015 is going to be a year in which your media company can choose to lead the next round of digital disruption rather than be trampled by it. But only if someone steps forward to seize the keys to the customer. CMOs, you have a couple of months in which to make that claim before some other role in the company does.

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