Do We Expect Too Much of CMOs

Do We Expect Too Much of CMOs?

7 minute read
Barry Schaeffer avatar

You may have noticed that the relationship between buyer and seller is in major flux. This turmoil impacts the position tasked with leading firms’ marketing efforts and held responsible for leading firms’ marketing efforts — the CMO. Today’s Chief Marketing Officer tops a pyramid of people, technology and behavioral science focused on getting the brand’s message to its intended audience in order to convince that audience to buy.

Many CMOs are finding it difficult to shoulder the blizzard of responsibilities descending on their desks. The CMO’s average tenure is just 45 months -- considerably shorter than their CEO, CFO and CTO counterparts. 

Given this level of turnover, it’s fair to ask why, with all the new and sophisticated technological resources available, so many CMOs can’t seem to get their feet on the ground.

The CMO: Person or Collection of Responsibilities?

You can find lists of skills that CMOs need for success, covering just about everything associated with selling anything to anyone by any means. The term CMO itself is relatively new, having replaced titles like Director of Marketing, VP of Marketing and Sales, etc. It seems at times as if it has become the dumping ground for everything the new marketplace demands. 

While useful, this “job description by requirements collection” process misses the point: can we expect any human being to fully discharge this complex a set of requirements?  I would argue that, with some exceptions, we can't.

So what can we reasonably expect of those in the CMO position? And what level and kind of support do they need to be successful?  

Digital Marketing: A New Ball Game with New Demands

While any position so central to the success of a firm in selling its wares or services will involve many details, a few key aspects stick out:

Exploding Market Complexity

Until the rise of the Internet and its many stripes of e-commerce, selling tended to be essentially bi-directional. The seller, knowing what he wanted to offer, found the market and directed marketing messages to it using various one-way media and messages based on the market’s demographics.  Having approached the market, the seller then waited for responses: buy, inquire or silence indicating “not interested.” 

However complex this two-way street could be, it was approachable and predictable. The target customers were focused on some medium -- radio, television, print publications, even movies using “product placement” -- in which the marketing message could be included.  Responses could be measured in contacts and sales, allowing the seller to evaluate the effectiveness of the message and adjust it accordingly.

That has all changed.

With the rise of Internet and social media, today’s seller, if he wants to engage potential customers, must confront a market that acts more like a huge garden party with small groups engaged in individual discussions, communicating in ways that don’t lend themselves to the insertion of a mass marketing message. The key, we are told, is to get the participants to recommend your products to each other so the “party” itself becomes your sales pitch. 

As you might imagine, this is complex, difficult to do successfully and easy to stub your toe on if you do it poorly. Yet the CMO is often held responsible for the concept, strategy and implementation of this type of marketing plan -- and made to walk the plank if it isn’t successful.


Marketing plans and program have traditionally taken months, sometimes years to develop, test and implement. Even longer if they are segmented into pilot efforts prior to a full assault on the market.

The Internet has compressed that time frame to weeks, a few months at most, with the expectation that results will be measurable almost immediately. And as you might imagine, the results, right or wrong, will fall on the CMO. Whether or not that level of pressure is appropriate, it is becoming a staple of firms hoping to use the Internet to support their business and, by inclusion, part of the CMO’s job description.

While unreasonable deadlines are nothing new in many boardrooms, the availability of highly automated analytics has given executives new ammunition to hold CMOs to often unreasonable expectations … and to fire them if the analytics don’t signal success.

Somewhere in this mix, we need a better understanding of how the new Internet-based market operates so we can hold CMOs responsible for reasonable performance goals.  Failing that, we will just keep firing our current CMO, hoping the next one will give us gold marketing thread out of straw.


Competition is best countered if one knows who the competitors are -- or are likely to be -- in order to measure their strengths and vulnerabilities up front. In the pre-digital marketplace, some good market research could put the head of marketing in a position to know these things and to plan a marketing effort to take that into account.

Learning Opportunities

Enter the Internet: e-commerce, supply chain automation from Amazon and its ilk, integrated delivery logistics from firms like UPS and FEDEX, large majorities of prospective customers carrying smart devices, virtual facilities requiring vastly smaller initial investment, and you have a market in which competitors can pop up in a matter of weeks, taking advantage of the outsource world to grab a seat at the table almost before you can find out who and where they are.

The CMO is expected to counter this competition from every quarter, planning and adjusting on a near real time basis. 

Marketing Structure  

As challenges grow and broaden beyond the traditional challenges, the equally traditional structures and techniques of firms’ marketing efforts face new challenges for which they are probably not fully prepared.

Marketing has traditionally been hierarchical, with a VP or other top title responsible for the overall effort, and subordinate managers and specialists arranged in hierarchical groups under that unitary head. In today’s world, the pressure on that structure has grown, especially at the top, to a level at which fewer and fewer potential leaders -- CMOs in current parlance -- have the talent and expertise to adequately understand the challenges and discharge their duties. 

Add to this, the fact that as the demand for CMOs grows, the pool of talent is, in some analyses, static or even shrinking. We may be asking too much of both the marketing structure and marketing leader.

If true, a reappraisal of the entire structure may be necessary and is, indeed, beginning.

Marketing Changes: Real Improvement or Tinkering?

One sign of this is the emergence of the Chief Marketing Technology Officer (CTMO) position, as firms try to take some pressure off the CMO by moving the more technological aspects of the marketing effort to a different individual.  While it acknowledges the need for more technology focus and expertise in marketing by creating another “Chief,” it also creates a potential competition between the CMO and CTMO positions. Who gets to make the key decisions?

Moreover, moving technology to another position may not significantly lighten the CMO’s load.  Understanding the technology of the Internet and social media, while not trivial, isn't the primary variable that drives business through their use. They can best be understood based on how customers use the technology. These human and behavioral traits often go beyond the understanding of technologists.

Instead, it may be more valuable to develop a position called “Chief Market Behavior Officer” or CMBO (to coin an acronym). The CMBO would be responsible for determining how people on social media behave and what marketing messages they would be most receptive to. Such a position would be essentially equal to the CTMO. Both would report to the CMO and receive whatever resources -- human and/or technological -- they deem appropriate and the firm can afford.

This would allow the CMO to become more leader and planner, and less actor and functionary.

The answer to the CMO challenges may lie in what we should expect of the person who holds the position, the development and provision of the appropriate support resources, and perhaps most important, the maturation of executives’ impressions of what marketing is capable of in today’s world, leading to a more reasonable set of expectations for the CMO and marketing efforts.  

Only by maximizing resources and properly setting expectations are we likely to see the CMO take its rightful place in the marketing world we face today and in the future. 

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Title image by  wwward0 

About the author

Barry Schaeffer

Barry is Principal consultant with Content Life-cycle Consulting, Inc. In 1993, he founded and led XSystems Inc, a system development and consulting firm specializing in text-based information systems, with industrial, legal/judicial and publishing clients among the Fortune 500, non-profit organizations and government agencies.