How the CMO role is changing—in some cases for the worse
When pondering the state of the chief marketing officer role, and the fact that the job has consistently high turnover, Lisa Mann poses a question: “Do CMOs have bad PR—like, are CMOs the problem? Or is the situation not set up properly?”
The answer, according to Mann, a former executive at PepsiCo, Kraft Foods, Mondelez and Kind, is that CMOs are often set up to fail, lacking input on functions including research and development that go a long way to determining sales success—no matter how good or bad the marketing is.
After holding top jobs in consumer packaged goods, Mann recently got into the talent business as CMO and managing director of Raines International, an executive search and leadership consulting firm that helps place CMOs and other executives.
Mann joined the latest episode of Ad Age's “Ad Lib” podcast to discuss how the CMO role is changing and what marketers can do to improve their standing. She also shared some Zoom job interview tips and took us back to 2013, when she green-lit Oreo’s famous “You can still dunk in the dark” tweet during the 2013 Super Bowl when the Mercedes-Benz Superdome lost power.
That kind of tweet, very common now, was seen as a watershed moment at the time, marking the beginning of an era when brands endlessly comment on culture. But Mann says the tactic is approaching its expiration date. Below, a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
What are companies looking for in executives right now?
They are looking for diversity and not just diversity of thought, [but] true diversity. And they are looking for agility—so leaders that will succeed from here on forward have to really embrace ambiguity and be able to make quick decisions, be comfortable with test and learn as opposed to plan, plan, plan. And I don’t think that is everyone.
What advice can you give to candidates to prove their agility?
I would highlight the ability to pivot. People who can look at their background and give examples of how they were able to move quickly, but even more important, to read results quickly and make pivots in-market.
Can you share job interview tips?
Candidates don’t realize they can own the interview process. Candidates who are waiting on their back foot to be asked the right question will fail. Those that are on their front foot, and are very clear about what difference they make, what difference they have brought to other companies, to other situations, and how they want to bring their difference-making skill to a new company—they need to own that and make sure they deliver that message.
How has the CMO role changed?
CMOs are starting not to report to CEOs and be tucked under another leader, like a chief growth officer, so they are not having a seat at the table. And they are not being assigned the work that is truly to grow the company. So is R&D reporting to the CMO? Does the CMO have an impact on product portfolio? I think that is a huge challenge and one that is causing the downfall of the CMO.
The CMO used to be the keeper of the consumer, meaning only the CMO was reporting to the leadership team about consumer behavior and attitudes. The difference now is every single function is reporting on consumer attitudes and behaviors. Supply chain and procurement are talking about how consumers want to know the origin of an ingredient. Supply chain is also reporting on consumer expectations of e-commerce and delivery speed. So no longer is the CMO the sole owner of the consumer’s heart. All of the entire leadership team now is. And how do they work together as opposed to against one another in meeting consumer demand, achieving consumer love? That is a real soup that is not always great for the CMO.
So are CMOs set up to fail?
I think that in a lot of companies they are, and obviously the stats are proving that with the tenure of the CMO not being that long.
How does a CMO advocate to get more responsibilities? Can you give an example?
I am on a CMO roundtable and there was a b-to-b CMO of a financial services institution and she started out in a smaller role of marketing. What she really ingeniously did is, by being such a great collaborator partner and a great communicator with the CEO and the rest of the senior team, she has slowly increased her scope of responsibility so that she now has within her purview more responsibility like product decisions and a seat at the table.
How has the pace of hiring been during the pandemic?
A lot of companies are starting searches and they want to make leadership changes. There is a lot of activity and I think it will continue because no one wants to sit still.
A lot of interviews are happening over Zoom. Any tips?
Broadway actors talk about the difference between being on Broadway and being on television and how when you are on television every little nuanced expression you make is seen close up. That is the exact same thing on Zoom—you are on television and you are not on Broadway—and you have to use your face and your voice and your intimation to show your enthusiasm, and I think it works for a lot of people.
What was your first job and what did you learn from it?
I was an electrical engineering major in college and my first job was in sales for Hewlett-Packard selling computers during a technology downturn. I really learned the importance of the sales force, that they are the first line. I really saw that strategic mistakes happened way up the food chain and the sales folks are stuck with bad products if good decisions weren’t made earlier. So I made the decision that I wanted to be higher up the food chain.
OK, about that “You can still dunk in the dark” tweet—take us back to that moment.
I do joke that that was two years in the making. Because I had been playing around with the tech platforms for all of Kraft, I knew there was something to publishing every day. We wanted to be culturally relevant, so we were really practicing every day with how could the cookie have a point of view on culture every day and be good listeners.
We had the war room ready with 360i and our PR agency. That group was watching and waiting to comment. We had been practicing. I got an email when the lights went out from Danielle Brown, who was the associate brand manager, saying ‘I would like to say when the lights went out, you can still dunk in the dark, do you approve?’
I had deals with legal and corporate affairs about what we could say yes to and how we could move, so we were prepared. I agreed that is an awesome tweet, go for it. And literally the world changed when I woke up the next morning and the idea of commenting on culture, publishing every day being culturally relevant became the fore.
Brand tweeting on stuff like this happens all the time now. Has it gone too far?
I don’t think it is as much fun now to see brands commenting on things happening in culture—those tweets—I am more interested in the ‘what’s next.’
What is next?
The next thing [might be] what some of the liquor companies are doing because they are in such bad straits with hospitality and they are making their campaigns tied to hospitality relief and helping bartenders. Is that the next frontier, where marketing has a bigger impact on giving?