Fixing CMO churn means hiring a new kind of CMO

By Published on .

Credit: Illustration by Mary Ellen Forte

Many talk of the tenure of CMOs as short. But counting days of employment is less interesting than understanding why we're seeing such shrinking CMO tenures and looking at what can be done to change the game.

Companies today are shifting their views on the value of marketing and marketers. They now see that marketing, communications and data together are what informs and engages the consumer. Let's call this "business critical." This is actually not a new idea—one might say it's baked into the origins of marketing.

In recent conversations with CEOs and CMOs, many speak of the sweeping changes marketing has undergone. Once upon a time, the CMO and marketers were considered business partners. But somewhere along the way, that partnership was diminished to executor or, worse, vendor status. In these same conversations with senior leaders, they talk of the vitality and necessity of marketing as a core business driver, and the shift in requirements of "chief marketing officer" to "chief precision officer."

Trish Shortell is managing director, executive search, at MediaLink
Trish Shortell is managing director, executive search, at MediaLink

But marketing organizations have unrealistic expectations when it comes to talent. If one more CEO tells me he or she is looking for a "unicorn," I might scream. Today, the remit from the C-suite and board isn't doable. The job brief might be: "Disruptors with 20 years of mobile, five years of blockchain—and if they can tell a story, great." And oftentimes the jobs turn out to be vastly different than promised.

But while no role at the C-level has evolved, enhanced and changed as much as the CMO role—the rapid evolution of technology is the culprit and the solution—defining the role is a challenge. What does a small private equity-backed business need from a CMO versus a large multinational? Very different things. The one common denominator is that this position needs to be a critical business driver.

Once upon a time, CEOs and boards valued the wisdom and insight about brands that marketers helped shape into business opportunities. But today, many companies see marketing as the final step in a business opportunity, and this positioning at the tail end of the journey is their biggest mistake.

So what should companies do?

Roles need to be defined better upfront. This means companies need to make the investment early on to conduct needs assessments of their businesses that define the type of capabilities and leadership required from marketers today. It's critical to seek input from all stakeholders: CEO, CRO, CIO, CTO and CHRO, and, yes, the boards need to be involved too. The role of CMO today is not a cookie-cutter template and needs to be customized to support the needs of the total business. The best marketers are entrusted to work in concert to advance business objectives across the entire organization.

It's important now to cross pollinate. It's likely that the capabilities and innovative thinking the business requires is outside your current industry. Be open. Keep in mind that the best people have multiple options. Know what you need from marketing leaders, so you know it when you see it.

Lastly, align responsibilities to core business objectives and bring in the best people for that job to do what they do best. If this is done, it's likely that the conversation will turn from counting days of CMO employment to a more vibrant conversation of growing businesses.

Trish Shortell is managing director, executive search, at MediaLink.

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