Building front that has "CEO" written on it next to foreign symbols.
PHOTO: Banalities

The path to the CEO’s office may not always include a pitstop in marketing. CEOs, however, can and have had top marketing experience. Spencer Stuart reported that 21 CEOs at FTSE 100 companies had marketing backgrounds (PDF), and 18 of the Fortune 500 did so as well.

CMOs can bring forward-thinking attributes to the CEO suite and also market vision and data-driven analysis, those who have made the executive jump told CMSWire. What is the path to the top executive’s chair like for some former CMOs and marketing VPs? We caught up with some who’ve made the journey. 

Matt Dion

Headshot of Matt Dion
Matt Dion

Matt Dion, CEO of Mintent Software Corporation, previously served as vice president of marketing at Elastic Path. He’s led Mintent since 2017. Dion's always been a bit of an entrepreneur. Early in his career, he gained vice president-level leadership experience in marketing, sales and product management roles.  Shortly thereafter, he earned the opportunity to do some angel investing and sit on boards such as Acetech and 90 Degree Software. Eventually, Dion landed a gig as president and CEO at Meridex Software Corporation. Unfortunately, that company was not immune to the economic woes of the 2008 recession. After another marketing role for nearly seven years, Dion landed his second CEO gig at Mintent, a content marketing platform. “I was entrepreneurial and I got a broad experience across the different roles which just naturally opened up some opportunities for me,” Dion said. 

Especially helpful, he noted, was serving as board member and investor. “You're not getting paid; you get a little bit of equity and if things go really really well then you might make some money and you’re not doing a ton of work,” Dion said. “But if things go poorly you do a ton of work and rarely make any money. But it was a very valuable experience because you are wearing the CEO’s hat in a way as a board member.” And, he always had that marketing background. 

So how has that helped Dion in his new CEO role? As CEO, Dion knows more than anything that nothing happens without sales. He has gained, as CEO, a great empathy for sales and marketing in terms of revenue and driving quality customer experiences. Organizations view it as a “necessary evil.” But, Dion said, when you sit in that seat, and you've got that quarterly number to hit and your job is on the line, you get a lot of appreciation for how hard that job is. “Being a sales leader is a really hard job, and that made me a better CMO,” Dion said.

Related Article: 8 Skills Every Digital Leader Needs

CEOs: Bottom-Line World

However, it’s still a bottom-line world as CEO. Dion’s mostly concerned with shareholder value and how much money his company spends vs. how much it earns. “So when marketing people get all proud with stats around shares, and likes and tweets, it’s like, ‘OK, and what does that do?’” Dion said. “It’s all about revenue, it's about conversions. That's why so many marketers struggle with social.”

As CEO and as a past VP of marketing, Dion said he can now see the gaps in marketing proposals. The end result of a program may be brand awareness and leads, but how much resources have we used? As CEO, he thinks from the very start of the project and how much it will cost — and that in turn helps marketing leaders in his company think that way.

Sell your CEOs, Dion said, with data. It won’t help marketers to sell their programs and campaigns with “I did this two years ago and it worked really well.” Show the hard data. A tradeshow with 5x ROI one year could be a dud the next time, he said. Try to put yourself in the CEO’s shoes,” Dion shared when asked to give advice for marketers working with CEOs. “Imagine me sitting in front of my board talking about how many tweets we got or how much much traffic we got, or how many pens we gave away at a trade show when our revenues are tanking. It doesn't help me. What helps me is knowing what we tried, what worked and what didn't work and why. Be really business focused and align to the objectives of the business.”

Stacey Epstein

Headshot of Stacey Epstein
Stacey Epstein

Stacey Epstein, CEO of Zinc, served as chief marketing officer for ServiceMax for close to six years and as CMO of Banjo for nearly a year. She’s closing in on her third year as CEO of Zinc. What kinds of skills and traits as a CMO did she carry over into her CEO role? Epstein told CMSWire it boiled down to three key skills.

  • Value proposition - Understanding and ability to articulate the value of the product or the offering in the mind of the customer is an incredibly valuable leadership skill and is relevant across all functions, she said.
  • Market understanding - Former CMOs should have an accurate grasp and genuine interest in understanding market dynamics, including competition and potential partnerships. 
  • Forward-looking - Former CMOs should have the ability to see into the future, have vision and drive innovation that will matter in years to come.

What's most important for the CEO-CMO relationship for the success of the company? “Any good working relationship has common understanding,” Epstein said. “A CEO is focused on company success, and a good CMO should be similarly thinking about driving revenue and top line growth as the department's most important goal.”

Great marketers don’t simply execute attractive or creative campaigns, Epstein added. “He or she develops and executes on strategies that drive not just marketing results, but company results,” Epstein said.

CEOs, meanwhile, need to understand at least at a high level what goes into driving pipeline creation. “Being on the same page about marketing metrics and how they correlate to company metrics,” Epstein added, “is crucial for a strong CEO-CMO relationship.” 

Related Article: 10 Skills and Traits of Great Marketing Technologists

Ken McElrath

Headshot of Ken McElrath
Ken McElrath

Ken McElrath, CEO of Skuid, has had roles as director of marketing (Leadership Catalyst, 1996-1999) and vice president of marketing and product management (Retailers Market Xchange, 2000-2002). McElrath trained early in his career as a designer and got into marketing leadership through his design background. 

People relate to stories, and McElrath said he draws upon his storytelling experience gained in marketing leadership roles in his post as CEO. “I love to tell stories,” McElrath said. “Those stories always have a point and they kind of relate back to the critical message that I need to survive with a company. And those stories kind of carry us forward into the future. I think with the customer it's the same when you learn to tell a story.”

As for his relationship with his CMO, McElrath said that works best when he lets her do her job. “And I contribute when I can and critique when I need to,” McElrath said. “But for the most part, it's her ballgame. Ultimately she calls the shots when it comes to marketing.”

Greg Morton

Headshot of Greg Morton
Greg Morton

Greg Morton, CEO of Next Concept HR Association, served as chief marketing officer of Great Place to Work from 2013 to 2015. He also has held leadership roles in other sales and marketing positions. For Morton, the most important skills he’s carried over to his CEO role from his marketing background include the understanding of the market he’s in from a high level trend perspective and granularly at a persona (individual you're targeting) level. “Continuing to not have a bias but rather let the data guide your decisions has been helpful,” Morton added.

The toolset has changed for CMOs, Morton said. “CMOs have always been in the business of growth but in the past found it difficult to tie their actions to the results,” he said. “I think the technology (real-time, cloud based) changed to a point where using data ensure not only better decisions are made, but credit or blame can be accurately allocated." 

CEOs and CMOs must have a common understanding of what business they are in, who their customers are and what the value proposition is, Morton said, adding: "I think the CMOs should always be thinking of accomplishing two things: impacting profit (determining what products need to be retired, which ones need to be invented) and building a brand with clarity so it takes all the friction it can out of consumer's selection process."