Chief marketing officers (CMOs) need to make things less complex and respond to customer needs meaningfully, usefully and empathetically. Michelle Peluso, senior vice president of digital sales and the CMO of IBM shared those thoughts in a May 5 report aimed at offering CMOs a playbook for navigating marketing leadership through COVID-19.

“Use this experience to reimagine how your marketing function and your organization can emerge even stronger,” Peluso wrote. CMOs, she added, need to support employees, pivot to support customers, position their brands for the moment, generate demand virtually and contribute to the cure and solution.

We spoke with CMOs and leaders across industries to find out what skills and traits best encapsulate today's CMO. This is by no means an exhaustive list but relevant to the state of the world today; the skills necessary are as diverse as the companies and industries they support.


A CMO much like the CEO has to be able to have a vision of where the company needs to be from a business, personnel and technology perspective, according to Paige O’Neill, CMO of Sitecore. A successful CMO needs to be able to distill market trends, research, business data and product attributes into messaging and programming (the story and how to tell it) that drives demand by connecting with customers.

"It’s crucial that your team has participated in the process, understands their roles and has bought in," O'Neill said. "If this didn’t happen pre-pandemic, it likely added to the confusion during the crisis as everyone tried to pivot to meet the new challenges. The quicker you can embrace or adapt your vision and provide clarity to your team, the better you will survive as we ride out the rest of these challenging times.”

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We always knew market conditions change quickly, but just when we thought the pace couldn’t get any faster, it did, O’Neill said. Almost overnight, marketing teams all over the world had to throw out significant portions of their marketing plans and pivot to 100% digital. “Even in the most dynamic of market segments, this was a reminder that the pace can always speed up and we have to be ready for anything,” she added.

For marketers, there’s a new realization in terms of how nimble and agile they can be, O’Neill said. “Instead of investing hours and hours in a six-month marketing roadmap, marketers have learned by meaning of necessity to adjust strategy on the fly and adapt to immediate consumer needs in ways never before thought possible,” O’Neill said. “A year from now we’ll be able to look back at this mass digitization experiment and apply these innovations to better understand what kind of digital experiences and technologies are most critical for customers.”


Monica Ho, CMO of SOCi, said CMOs play a key leadership role within the organization. As a result, they are often looked to for answers to some pretty sophisticated problems, especially in today's ever changing and evolving marketplace. “What I have learned over the years is that there is no shame in not knowing the answers to all of these questions and that it is OK to ask for help, internally from other leaders, your team, or even outside by pulling on your own network,” Ho said. “At the end of the day, we need to know when we need to be the student vs. the teacher, as the reality is we can't know the answer to everything, but we can certainly find those that do. We just have to remember to make sure we pay this forward and help others in need when we are the ones with the answers.”

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Market Insight

West Monroe Partners CMO Casey Foss said a modern CMO needs to thoroughly understand the market and how outside market trends directly influence buyer needs. “Today, your customers operate in an increasingly connected, virtual world, where trends or news typically cut across industries, even if the impacts and solutions are varied,” she said. “Take, for example, businesses that have been disrupted by the pandemic and shoved into an all-digital world — retailers who need to move product in new ways, supply chains that need to be digitized, healthcare providers that need to treat patients remotely and the rapid expansion of telehealth.”

Recognizing the broader context will help CMOs more easily determine your customers’ specific needs and the solutions that will ultimately drive the most financial value for them. “More than anything else, CMOs must have a pulse on the market and know how to strategically use that insight to influence decisions and help the business thrive,” Foss said.

Analytical, Yet Creative

CMOs must also be both highly analytical and creative, Foss said. You can’t rely on one skill or the other to fully understand your customers and provide them with increased value. “Use customer and company data to uncover the real story of how customers perceive your company and its products or services,” Foss said. “Then use this data-driven insight, coupled with creative thinking, to develop actionable creative campaigns, messaging and resources that show new and existing customers how your partnership delivers value.”

Being Human

In today’s remote environment, being “human” is more important than ever, according to Foss. CMOs are usually responsible for their company's brand, so their top priority should always be to develop and sustain their company's human approach to business, whether they’re B2B or B2C. “Throughout the current pandemic, we’ve seen some companies succeed at this and others struggle, but one thing’s certain — you cannot “fake it” in the world today,” Foss said. “Those companies who were already values-based and authentic are thriving as they respond to their customers need to feel that their issues are being heard.”

Buyers are becoming increasingly savvy, and buying groups are getting larger, so make it easier for them. Remove business jargon, cut to the chase and focus on value. “Without the ability to communicate quickly and effectively human to human,” Foss said, “buyers will find a partner, company, or product that will.”

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Alignment with Technical Teams

Kelly Hopping, CMO of Software Advice, said the ability for CMOs and product/engineering leaders to align on project goals and deliverables is a critical step that is a lot easier said than done. “The most effective projects we have completed are when all team leads are involved from beginning to end — to provide guidance, voice concerns and share lessons learned from their areas of expertise,” Hopping said. “A shared project roadmap and clear ownership of responsibilities are key components to driving success. Defining the objectives and key performance metrics can also be instructive in knowing when a project has achieved its goals versus continuing to try to optimize the existing project.”

Hopping said her team has run into issues once a project is too far down the road from a technical standpoint, without incorporating tech and product teams from the beginning. “It can definitely wind up delaying the immediate project or causing the results to be less impactful,” she said. “This often requires a significant time investment to go back and re-plumb a project that should have been built with more long term considerations in mind from the onset."

Strategic, Yet Tactical

Dawn Colossi, CMO of FocusVision, said the best CMOs need to be able to be both strategic and tactical all at the same time. “At the beginning of March, there wasn’t a CMO on Earth who wasn’t faced with massive disruption and all of our 2020 plans basically went out the window,” she said. “The best CMOs were able to quickly lead their teams through a very hard pivot, using all data at their fingertips — big data, like website metrics, point of purchase, etc. and small data that comes from quick pulse research for insights to how their customers were reacting to the current situation based on thoughts and feelings.”

Learning Opportunities

This, she said, was not the time for a big strategic plan that took a lot of time to execute. A quick reactive tactical plan was exactly what the teams needed to understand their roles in helping their company, Colossi said. “Now, of course, being an essential member of the executive team to plan for the next six months to two years is essential to help the brand navigate what will certainly be harder times then we’ve experienced in the past decade,” Colossi said.

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The pandemic has knocked the wind out of many organizations and in conjunction, thrown 2020 marketing plans out the window, according to Cindy Zhou, chief marketing officer for LogRhythm. CMOs are helping their organization's shift strategy to focus on customer retention and find new avenues to grow. “With all the uncertainty, I believe a key trait for today's CMO is resilience,” Zhou said. “The ability to stay flexible with rapidly changing conditions to ensure customers and team members are positioned for success.”

CMOs need to balance empathy for customers, employees and the community by making the tough calls to do what's right for the business, Zhou added. The ability to pivot quickly is paramount.

Zhou cites the example of shifting budget and resources away from the many canceled physical events to webinars and virtual events. “Instead of customer gifts, donating meals to local hospital front-line health care workers was another initiative LogRhythm was proud to initiate,” Zhou said. “CMOs lead the charge in creative ways to help customers in their times of need, and for employees living the new norm of work-life integration.”

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Jon Russo, CMO and founder of B2B Fusion, said the right mindset can help CMOs adapt and protect from physical or mental hardships. “Today, many employees and companies are facing unprecedented hardships,” Russo said. “We’re all operating in a very ambiguous environment, where it is unusually challenging to confidentially forecast outcomes we were able to do in the past.”

Russo told CMSWire his career recently spanned as a high tech CMO for 10 years and currently as an agency owner. However, he draws on his early career experience in the military, where that culture was built on a mindset mantra: “Improvise, adapt and overcome.”

“Those mindset traits are most needed today by companies and by their people,” Russo said.“Leaders need to encourage their people to stay on the move by taking risks, adapting to the uncomfortable environment and overcoming the myriad of obstacles that we all face today. It’s too easy to react or settle in the comfort of the home environment. If people keep moving forward with decisions, acting rather than reacting, they and their company will come out stronger, with the right market feedback.”

Recognition of What Works

Many marketing leaders own their company’s largest discretionary budget. “In disruptive times, they must reduce expenditures — staff and program spend — to double down on the most effective programs supporting their company’s top strategic priorities,” said Dustin Grosse, chief marketing officer and strategy officer at Nintex.

Next Steps for CMOs?

Federal and state governments are beginning to loosen stay-at-home advisories and allowing some businesses to reopen. CMOs and marketing teams need to get ahead of this next transitional phase, according to Sitecore’s O’Neill. “I’d recommend marketers focus on internal changes that can be done right now to set their own organizations up for success as economies reopen,” she said.

Organizations have seen a dramatic shift in the need for digital transformation to enable omnichannel capabilities in the pandemic. “However,” O’Neill said, “these changes really need buy-in from the entire C-Suite for an effective implementation because it requires a cultural shift within the organization to work well. Now is a critical time to get ahead of your company’s digital transformation because the demand for it will only grow.”