Traffic on a highway in Innisfil, Ontario

3 CMOs Discuss Proving Worth and the Road Ahead for Marketing Leaders

9 minute read
Dom Nicastro avatar
We caught up with three CMOs to discuss the importance of their roles, what they do and the future of the role.

Everyone loves a good “CMOs are going extinct” story. And we've got plenty of fodder with McDonald’s. The fast food chain did not fill the role of global CMO Silvia Lagnado after she announced plans to step down this year. Instead, the Golden Arches folks promoted two new roles: Colin Mitchell as SVP, global marketing; and Bob Rupczynski as SVP, marketing technology. Marketing gurus took notice

Death of the CMO impending? Maybe so. After all, McDonald’s was not the first major brand to do away with the CMO role. Coca-Cola in 2017 famously axed the CMO role in favor of a chief growth officer. 

Not Dying, Just Evolving

But some nix the death talk, saying simply the CMO role has become a role with great complexity, one that requires a growing skill set of technology, branding and revenue-growth chops. Ultimately, those requirements make this role fickle and hard to fill. The average length of a CMO has improved but not by much at all: a whopping one month, from 43 months to 44 months, according to Spencer Stuart research published this spring.

“It’s a very fluid market right now,” said Debbie Qaqish, principal and chief strategy officer for The Pedowitz Group who wrote her dissertation on how the CMO adopts financial accountability in a digital marketing environment. CMOs have a “wide extreme” of responsibilities depending on the company that can include growth, revenue, customer experience, branding and communications. Some CMOs, Qaqish finds, have an “enormous pressure to be accountable for revenue and to be directly accountable for growth.”

Related Article: CMOs Share Their Top Priorities for Remainder of 2019

What Say You, CMO?

Are CMOs feeling the reverberations of the industry shakeups at the big brands like McDonald's and Coca-Cola? What is a day in the life like for a CMO on the battlegrounds? We caught up with two current CMOs and one former to discuss how they spend some of their day, the importance of the role and what’s in store for future marketing leaders like themselves.

Like Other Jobs: People, Administration Stuff

A CMO’s role is not always the glitz and glamour of keynoting. Kipp Bodnar, chief marketing officer at Cambridge, Mass.-based HubSpot, a provider of marketing and sales software, said a good chunk of his time (around 30%) is spent around “people-related stuff.” He helps marketing team members understand the next step in their careers and meets with people who might be having challenges to help determine ways they can better collaborate and work together. Then there's some administration, approving and reviewing things, of course.

Lending a Hand in Business-Strategy Decisions 

The real magic for Bodnar is the time he spends helping the business make the right business strategy decisions. He wants to constantly be a “good steward of the business,” making sure HubSpot can “focus, invest and operate around what we need to do to make those business strategy decisions happen.” “What are the major initiatives we're going to work on over the next year?” Bodnar said. “How are we going to budget and organize our teams to take advantage of all of those things?”

Balancing the Subjective With the Objective

A big challenge? Balancing providing business leaders with hard data and business results with the more soft metrics like brand positioning and communication. “There are some objective and some subjective results,” he said. “And the objective results are you’ve committed to some numbers in terms of visits, leads, user signups, qualified leads and all of those things. And those are largely objective. You can know if you’re achieving those or not.”

But Bodnar also cares about subjective outcomes: brand positioning and things that “take a lot longer to get feedback.” “For me,” Bodnar added, “I think my job is to understand at any point in time which of those buckets is further top of mind, and I try to provide as much transparency and involvement and data where possible to do that.”

Related Article: How Winning CMOs Are Driving Growth

Efficiency Top of Mind

Derek Slayton, chief marketing officer for Atlanta-based Terminus, a provider of account-based marketing software, said he’s constantly measuring efficiency in his team’s marketing processes. “Can I drive more efficiency?” he said. Getting the right product marketing fit, creating a message that resonates with a segment that you think matters, and creating an efficient channel to reach that segment. Then, it becomes about actually being able to close deals. That’s what’s top of mind for Slayton many days in his CMO role.

Getting Strategic With Executives

Slayton, too, said he’s responsible for the tangible outcomes like a good website, managing communications and generation a strong customer pipeline and leads. However, he feels he spends most of his time at the strategic level with his company’s executive team, interacting with all business functions, “and actually writing down what I think our strategic imperatives are.” He calls it a “product manager for corporate strategy.” It’s about taking part in those senior-level discussions, getting some level of a consensus decision and then prioritizing initiatives. He works closely with the CEO and CFO.

“And I think that's what I get most excited about, and I think that’s where marketing needs to be,” Slayton said. He cautioned that “marketing used to be the arts and crafts department, and now it’s becoming the lead generation thing. But I think that does a disservice to marketing because the more your marketing team is just lead generation, the more they're actually just part of the sales.”

Related Article: 5 Reasons CMOs Are Facing an Uphill Battle

Learning Opportunities

Getting Close to the Customer

HubSpot’s Bodnar said his own criticism of himself is not spending enough time with customers. He’s constantly trying to weave in time for customer learning, and HubSpot recently hired a full-time role responsible for gathering and producing customer stories. 

Slayton, meanwhile, listens in on customer success calls for feedback, concerns and questions coming from customers. It;s about learning “how does that match what's going on in our marketplace?”

Managing Strategy Within Budget Constraints

The greatest challenge as a CMO is to create a solid, encompassing marketing strategy that is budget-conscience, and educate management, especially founders and CEOs, on marketing's importance to growth and success of the company, according to Efrat Fenigson, who is now co-founder of G-CMO Forum, a community of Israel-based CMOs. Fenigson served as CMO of Petah Tikva, Israel-based Airobotics, an automated drones startup, until this year.

“Many CEOs or founders, and unfortunately investors who act as board members, too, from time to time, lack the understanding and appreciation for what good marketing does for the business,” Fenigson said. “In many cases, marketing is viewed as a ‘patch’ to fix a problem, rather than a fundamental foundation of the business. Once that hurdle is crossed, and the understanding is in place, the toughest challenge is to create a strategy that is clear and well-digested in the organization, while operating within budget constraints.” 

Fighting Perceptions of Bad Marketers

Another challenge CMOs like Fenigson in her past role face is Israelis are often viewed as “not good at marketing.” “That dates back to our conditioning: startup founders mostly come from product or R&D backgrounds,” she said. “They build companies that are consistent mostly of technical people, especially in early stages. And so little by little the majority of the tech industry in Israel is technical.”

Further, the academic landscape in Israel traditionally has not been very advanced in its level of marketing studies. “This is starting to change nowadays, but we still need to confront the underlying stigma or generalization that Israel doesn’t have the right talent pool,” Fenigson said. “Up until about 10 years ago it was hard to find senior level Marketers in Israel; today that is not the case any longer.” 

The Attribution Game Never Easy

CMOs will continue to be pushed to contend with a “dissonance created between digital marketing that can be measured to offline, physical, traditional and even PR-based marketing which are harder to quantify or attribute.” CMOs will need to push marketing teams to adopt a customer-centric, more “outside-in” approach, based on classical marketing methods such as buyer and persona analysis, market trends analysis, and understanding buyer problems, needs and journeys, rather than an “inside-out” technology-driven tactical approach, according to Fenigson.

Related Article: Beyond the Campaign: Times They Are A-Changing for CMOs

Long Live the CMO!

So will the CMO live on past 2020 and beyond? Of course, Fenigson said. “The fact that the CMO's position is unsure and questionable is absurd,” she said. “We live today in a world where brand-building is relatively easy. Individuals are building strong successful brands that compete with businesses. Noise-levels are rising due to the nature of the digital sphere. In other words, we live in a very competitive environment. In this kind of environment, creating impactful, memorable and meaningful brands becomes a necessity. Who else in the organization can lead this type of work? Not sales, not finance, and not even product.”

Marketing has a big mission to fulfill, though, Fenigson added. If CEOs or CFOs keep CMOs' scope small and don’t listen to them, we’ll continue to see CMOs hopping around jobs. “CMOs,” she said, “are often not given enough time to properly conduct strategic processes such as branding, market intelligence research etc., while results are being demanded yesterday. Top management needs to understand and respect the process.”