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Chief marketing officer's stints are getting shorter and shorter, but is their value diminishing as well? PHOTO: shankar s.

The Wright brothers probably had an easier time conceiving flight than most of us do describing today's chief marketing officer.

CMOs, who have landed in the spotlight in this age of customer experience and marketing technology, remain an enigma for many industry observers.

Are they technologists? Are they the next CEOs? The lifeblood of the C-Suite or an afterthought? 

Do they commit to organizations for the long term or are they perennial free agents always looking for the next best thing, often leaving within months of their first day?

And here's a sobering thought: Should they even exist anymore (see Coke)?

Start with the Customer

Tom Wentworth
Tom Wentworth

It leaves one wondering: Can’t CMOs be, well, just CMOs? Leaders of organizational marketing responsible for brand recognition and customer experience, revenue growth and client retention?

“Too often CMOs try to implement an existing playbook based on prior experience when they start at a new company,” said Tom Wentworth, CMO for Cambridge, Mass.-based analytics provider RapidMiner

Wentworth spent three years as CMO at digital experience provider Acquia before taking over his current role nearly two years ago. Boston-based Acquia rose in about 10 years from startup to IPO-flirter with more than 750 employees, $150 million in revenue yearly and $173.5 million in venture capital funding.

“Applying the wrong tactics,” Wentworth added, “no matter how great you are at implementing them, is a surefire recipe for disaster. The best CMOs obsess over the customer and work backward to the solution, whatever it is. That’s why the most important attribute for a CMO today is the ability to learn and adapt. World-class CMOs never follow playbooks or trends, they create them.”

Sticking Power or Leaving Power?

Here's a sobering fact, though: CMOs don’t stick around for long in many cases. 

According to Chicago leadership consulting firm Spencer Stuart, the average tenure for CMOs of US consumer brand companies dropped this year from 44 to 42 months.

That marks a six-month decline over the last two years, according to the research published in March

A month earlier, Korn Ferry reported the average CMO in the US stays in the job for just 4.1 years, behind the average for the C-Suite of 5.3 years. CEOs clock in at an average of eight years. And the CFO, CIO and chief HR officers all beat their marketing executive colleagues in tenure.

Korn Ferry officials cited the “exceptionally complex” nature of the CMO role. 

Greg Welch
Greg Welch

“Somebody shows up and there may be organ tissue rejection or they don’t fit in culturally or they didn’t drive the change they had hoped they would bring right away,” said Greg Welch, a consultant in the Spencer Stuart Marketing Officer Practice who initiated the firm’s CMO tenure study in 2004. “And people are kind of coming and going quickly. We see a lot of first-time CMOs coming into jobs, and we’ve got fewer people who have been in the chair more than three years. That’s a little frightening for us.”

CMO Tenure Snapshot

CMSWire did its own research based on random CMO profiles on LinkedIn. We found many CMOs in their first or second years but also a few with more than eight years under their belt:

  • Patrick Carroll, CMO, NutraClick, four years, 11 months. Prior: marketing director, NutraClick, 10 months
  • Tom Wentworth, CMO, RapidMinder, one year, eight months. Prior: CMO, Acquia, three years
  • John A. Steinert, CMO, TechTarget, one year, three months. Prior: interim demand generation marketing leader, Mercer, two years
  • Loren Weinberg Jarrett, CMO, Progress, six months. Prior: CMO, Acquia, one year, three months
  • Heather Moses, CMO, Nexthink, five months. Prior: Interim CMO, MP Objects, three months, CMO, Pneuron Corp., 10 months
  • Monique Bonner, CMO, Akamai Technologies, one year. Prior: VP, global digital, technology and innovation, three years, three months
  • Joe Staples, CMO, Workfront, two years, 11 months. Prior: CMO, Interactive Intelligence, nine years, seven months
  • Corinne Sklar, CMO, Bluewolf, 11 years. Prior: Marketing programs manager, Kodak Gallery, one year
  • Christopher McLaughlin, CMO, Nuxeo, five months. Prior: CMO, enterprise content division, EMC, two years, four months
  • James Norwood, CMO, Episerver, two years, six months. Prior: Operational advisor, Accel-KKR, six months
  • Victor Milligan, CMO, Forrester, two years, seven months. Prior: CMO, Nexage, three years, eight months.
  • Ann Lewnes, CMO, Adobe, 11 years. Prior: VP, marketing, Intel, 21 years
  • Maggie Chan Jones, CMO, SAP, two years, eight months. Prior: Senior VP, North America marketing, Level 3 Communications, two years, four months.

'A Role in Transition'

Do these short tenures mean the eventual demise of the CMO role? Not quite, said Jake Sorofman, research vice president at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner.

Many CMOs have been given a “very broad mandate,” Sorofman told CMSWire, “which often includes customer experience, digital commerce and innovation and transformation initiatives.” 

He called reports of declining CMO tenures an “artifact of a role in transition, but not a harbinger of its demise.” 

“To me,” Sorofman added, “these reports suggest that the CMO isn’t always equipped to deliver on the outsized expectations being laid at their feet. This means modernizing the marketing organization and lifting the maturity of capabilities in data, customer insight, design, orchestration and the technologies enabling all of these things.”

CMO turnover lately is “largely involuntary,” the result of skills gap constraints and the “very real challenge of trying to drive longer-term change while also delivering near-term results.”

CMOs aren’t running for the hills, Sorofman said. They are “energized and passionate about driving change,” but need budget, time and cooperation. 

“The absence of any one of these three things,” he said, “can easily undermine their efforts.”

‘Unrealistic Expectations’

Shorter tenures for CMOs could be due to companies setting unreachable early goals for new CMOs.

Cindy Zhou, vice president and principal analyst at Cupertino, Calif.-based Constellation Research, said the business environment for consumer brands changing rapidly due to digital disruption.

“Unrealistic expectations are also placed on the CMO with many wearing multiple hats while their budgets are one of the first to be cut,” Zhou said. “CMOs can help themselves by proving business impact.”

And for those that stay? Something has to be going well.

“The CMOs that have a true seat at the table and seen as a driver of growth versus a cost-center, have higher job satisfaction,” Zhou added. “Also important is having the comfort level knowing that the CEO has their back and allows them to take risks.”

It also helps when CMOs understand technology because today’s marketing is centered around understanding data, analytics and how to utilize the marketing and sales technology stack to make informed decisions.  

Rajan Kohli
Rajan Kohli

Rajan Kohli, global head of Wipro Digital, the digital branch of $8 billion IT services company Bangalore-based Wipro, told CMSWire he sees the CMO role as critical to an organization’s success. He even compared today’s CMO to a chief operating officer.

CMOs are the drivers in many new strategies and can lead design and experience initiatives, crucial facets of today’s digitally-driven organizations.

“The CMO,” Kohli added, “is getting very powerful.”

Modern CMO Qualifications

Zhou said a modern CMO should be able to:

  • Spot business trends and drive shifts in strategy accordingly
  • Balance the art of brand building with the science of technology
  • Leverage domain expertise
  • Communicate in a masterful way
  • Motivate and develop high-performing teams.

“The modern, high-performing CMO is a driver of business growth, influencing customers and building brand equity,” Zhou said. “CEOs should treat their CMO as they would the CFO, a key member and right hand. There are still many companies where the head of marketing is not a direct report to the CEO, and I look forward to seeing that change.”