Is CMO a Temp Job?

By April 15, 2011 Blog

As has been discussed far and wide, the average tenure of a CMO is somewhere around 21 months. Rarely is it the incompetence of the CMO. Most of them are bright, accomplished people. In most cases, it is because the CMO was set up to fail with unreasonable revenue expectations or asked to market a bad product. What is interesting is that this trend doesn’t seem vary much with great companies v. poorly run companies or good products v. bad products. It appears that the modern CMO may be the most transitional executive position. Why is this?

Effective CMOs are typically big idea people. They tend to be strategic marketers not tactical marketers. Rare is the person who can excel at both the big idea and in the minutia of the execution. As such, the execution of the tactics is handled by Brand Managers, Marketing Managers, etc. – in essence, the “assembly line supervisors” of the marketing system. Speaking of “system”, the execution of marketing is a commodity. Once the idea is created and the execution system is in place, it is natural to drive costs out of the system. In short, it is cheaper to pay several tactical people than to pay one CMO. If the big idea and strategic marketing are successful, what does a CMO do? After the launch, most of the details will be handled by managers. Unless the company has other initiatives, there are really only a couple of places to go – out or up; either leave the company or get promoted to CEO. The latter is actually occurring more frequently.

CMOs typically get one shot to be right. If they are brought in and their strategic marketing/branding plan doesn’t work, they are shown the door. It is a bit like being a football coach at a big time college – win now or die. There is not a lot of patience to build a brand internally by focusing on quality control, creating employee evangelists, opening up the marketing to allow customers to participate, etc. Most Boards and CEOs want results NOW. Unfortunately, sometimes greatness takes time.

The biggest issue that creates the “temp” feeling of the CMO role is that the marketing rules have changed. When done properly, modern marketing is about creating a large enough customer base to reach word-of-mouth critical mass. This means an initial outlay of external marketing dollars, but only to reach the point where your customers become your primary marketing driver. At this point, almost all marketing should turn inward. As such, the CMO must evolve to a role of something more like “Chief Branding Officer” or “Chief Experience Officer” (CXO?) – someone who obsesses about the customer experience, customer feedback, product quality, etc. Unfortunately, in most corporate hierarchies, these are Department Head-type roles, not executives.

In light of all this, it is no coincidence that the CMOs with the longest tenure, that have overcome the “temp” curse, are in innovative, forward-thinking organizations. In fact, they may not even be called “CMOs”. It is likely that they started with a strategic marketing role, but because of their own flexibility and the innovative culture of their organizations they have continued to evolve their role to provide value to the over-all brand. This follows the “Good to Great” philosophy of the “right people on the bus, in the right seats”. Who says they can’t change seats?

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