The Gist

  • Cultural challenges. Bad CMO behavior may stem from organizational culture or recruitment issues.
  • Balancing act. CMOs must navigate the fine line between innovation and overstepping boundaries.
  • Stakeholder engagement. When making significant decisions, CMOs must ensure proper buy-in from key stakeholders.

It goes without saying that a chief marketing officer is one of the most important roles in any organization. They are responsible for facilitating the growth, sales and marketing strategy for their firm and can play a large role in its success. 

But what happens when good CMOs go bad — and do things that harm the organization instead of helping it? What steps can an organization take to safeguard against bad CMO decisions — and bad CMOs?

It turns out there is no one silver bullet to resolve this problem, explained Chris Ross, a vice president and analyst in the marketing practice at Gartner. Bad CMO behavior may reflect a cultural deficiency in the organization. Or it may be due to bad recruiting practices. In some cases, it may be an inherited condition.

Whatever the root cause, even the most well-intentioned CMO can make decisions that have a negative impact on the organization, Ross said. On the one hand, the CMO must be given the authority to try new things, to be innovative and to “push the envelope.” On the other hand, too much power can easily go to a CMO’s head, prompting them to act too independently or make rash decisions.

Therefore, every organization must carefully vet a CMO candidate and ensure they are the right “fit” for its culture, mission and values.

“This is a real balancing act for CMOs because you want buy-in from peers and from stakeholders, and you want to make sure that you have the support of others in the organization,” Ross explained. “There is also, oftentimes, a lot of friction with the CMO. Some of those other stakeholders don't always want the same things that the marketing executive wants to do. And sometimes marketing has to move quickly, and they don’t have the luxury of getting that buy-in from various stakeholders.”

Big Technology Investments Can Come Back to Bite the CMO

Something that often ends up having really negative consequences is when a CMO makes big decisions on their own about such things as technology investments or strategic shifts, Ross suggested.

“That can cause a ripple effect throughout business when it’s done without having the support and the buy-in of some of the key stakeholders,” Ross said. “We see lots of different reasons for that. But it’s often because someone feels pressured to do something really big, something provocative or do something quickly. They don’t take the time to get stakeholder engagement behind it, and it ends up not going well.”

In some instances, a new CMO might be stepping into a role where their predecessor left them “a mess,” and they are tasked with the fix, Ross said.

“So the new person comes in, they fire all the old agencies and hire a bunch of new agencies. Well, those may or may not be the right agencies, and the company may now spend an enormous amount of money. They may find themselves stuck with gigantic contracts and huge engagements that are really painful and difficult to unwind,” Ross said.

Or perhaps a CMO finds they were hired into a situation that isn’t what they thought they were getting into. That can easily happen when an organization hires a CMO whose background and experience are with a different industry, Ross suggested. The candidate may seem to have transferable skills, but it turns out to be a bad move.

Ross said a common example of this is when an organization is looking to shake things up and looks for someone to bring in new ideas and help reinvent its brand. So the CEO is all on board, and the company hires the seemingly perfect outsider.

But then, it turns out that this organization was a sleepy old company for a reason, and new ideas won’t fly, Ross explained. It quickly becomes a case of “organ rejection,” he said.

“In those cases, the CMO doesn't really have the support that they thought they were going to have. And the organization isn't really that interested in reinventing themselves,” Ross noted.

“It happens to varying degrees of magnitude,” Ross said. “Sometimes it's really extreme. Sometimes it plays out in a matter of months. Sometimes it takes a little bit longer.”

Related Article: What You Should Do in Your First 3 Months as Chief Marketing Officer

CMOs Are Charged With Doing Big Things and Taking Risks

In defense of CMOs, many are expected to pursue big projects and strategies as part of their mission. They are asked to do something provocative and substantial, Ross said. 

“They’re told ‘we need you to make seismic changes to what's happening in the business,'” Ross explained. “They are essentially forced to make some big bets and do some big things with strategy. They've got to make some big investments and big decisions.”

Learning Opportunities

Quite simply, most CMOs are not expected to come into the role and just do “a bunch of little incremental stuff,” as Ross termed it. "They are expected to be the growth engine for the business and make some big changes.”

Of course, when you make big bets and big decisions, sometimes they work, and sometimes they don't, Ross stressed. But for someone in the CMO role, the stakes are higher.

Despite that risk, Ross said that one of the worst things that an organization can do is to spend the time to hire a highly capable CMO and then micromanage them.

“The most successful CMOS feel very empowered and supported in their organization,” Ross said. “Every little thing they do isn’t being questioned or second-guessed. It's a balancing act. But you've got to have some governance in place. You can't just have the CMO running off and doing things without justifying them or making the business case for those things.” 

Related Article: Why the 'C' in CMO Stands for Change

For One CMO, It Comes Down to Sales Velocity

Christopher P. Willis, chief marketing officer at Acrolinx, told CMSWire in a CMO Circle interview this month he thinks a lot in terms of sales velocity. It's essentially the most important aspect he does: number of opportunities, times the average deal size, times the win rate, over the average sales cycle length, and that's comes out to a number.

"It doesn't really matter what it is — it just should be growing," Willis said. "... I can impact the number of opportunities coming into the pipeline, both by working with marketing organization to drive MQLs into meetings and into early-stage opportunities, but also working with the sales organization to ensure that they're getting the most out of their prospecting and that they have access to the right tools and information."

This allows sales to build its individual databases within its target market, so that it can prospect effectively and build more opportunities from an average deal size.

"And that's both working with the sales team to make sure they're enabled to tell the value message — but also building the value message," Willis said. "So, reaching back into product marketing, and making sure that we're collecting the right information upfront to tell the right story to enable the sales organization from a win rate standpoint, thinking in terms of awareness and making sure ... our customers and our prospects know who we are."

The CMO’s Best Career Protection Is Educating Others on Big Decisions

Ross advises CMOs that “If you're going to make some really big decisions, make sure you properly socialize those decisions. When you get ready to do something significant, make sure that nobody is surprised.”

“You really want the dynamic that we're all in agreement that this is the thing to do, this is our new strategy, and here is our backstory as to why,” Ross stressed. 

“If it's something that's big, and potentially risky for the business, you need the buy-in. Smart CMOs are not afraid to take chances, but they don't do it in a flippant sort of way,” Ross continued. “They make sure that they're educating people and justifying why it makes sense. That will help get everyone on board. It doesn't guarantee that you'll have a great outcome, but at least everybody will be on the same page, and everyone will be in it together.”