Alchemy for Chief Marketing Officers.

A bird in a cage may sing, but it can’t soar. A chief marketing officer, (CMO), apparently, is very much like a bird in a cage.  And you and I want to avoid being like either.

In a fascinating twist of irony, the bird sees the bars that confines him.  The CMO doesn’t.

CMOs have the highest turnover in the c-suite with the the average CMO lasting only 28 months.  This tenure is far shorter than the 46 months of his colleagues.  Only the CIO comes in at a distant 38 months.

This statistic seems blind to industries, caring only about title.  So it’s safe to conclude that there is something structurally unsound about the CMO job that keeps it a short one.  There are bars, or maybe a moat, around that job and we should learn to see them for our own sake.

And so, naturally, everyone has a theory.

In Forbes, a former CMO writes that CMOs are subject to what he calls the “Marketer’s Dilemma.”

That is, focus on today’s results, do the same thing that always worked and expect to get passed by aggressive competition. Focus too much on long-term innovation and you miss today’s results. Try some big innovations that fail, and you lose your credibility. While effective marketing isn’t rocket science, it’s quite a balancing act to hit the sweet spot that delivers today’s results while building the brand for the long term. And it’s all played out in public.

But don’t we all need to balance the short and long term?

In an article titled “Bottom-line Pressure Forcing CMO Turnover” another former CMO posits:

“The core underpinning challenge is being able to demonstrate you’re adding value to the bottom line,” Murphy said. “In b-to-b, it’s harder than in b-to-c because you’re selling highly proprietary assets, and personal relationships are much more important in the marketing mix than in b-to-c.

“It is harder to demonstrate if your marketing initiative is the determining factor in increasing value to the bottom line, as opposed to selling consumer products.”

Murphy said successful CMOs in 2008 will need to be highly skilled in analytics, use new technologies and metrics to demonstrate the full value marketing represents to the company, and be able to fully integrate with sales and other functions of the organization.

We may have some clues here, but I don’t know if Murphy sees what I’m seeing.

Then there’s this tongue-in-cheek observation that the reason CMOs have such high turnover is:

…too many of them followed a three step process:

  1. Rebrand
  2. Relaunch
  3. Resign

Here’s my “alchemical” explanation for the CMO merry-go-round:

  1. The CMO position is a means to an end.  And, as often happens, the means fill the screen and we can’t see the ends.
  2. The CMO is expected to fix problems whose roots are in the neighbor’s yard.

Let’s start with # 1.

Peter Drucker pointed out years ago that:

“Because the purpose of business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two–and only two–basic functions: marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are costs. Marketing is the distinguishing, unique function of the business.”

Marketing and innovation are everyone’s job.  So to pin the marketing job on the CMO is already misdirection.

(And once on the subject of corporate misdirection, there’s a thread that when you start pulling, it keeps on coming.)

What REALLY is marketing, anyway?

Why do you choose one cell phone over another?  One restaurant over another?  One lawyer over another? You choose the one you perceive will give you what you want in a way that their competitors won’t. Depending on the product or service, there may be dozens or hundreds of factors that color your perception.

Those factors may include what features the cell phone has, or doesn’t have.  It may include the payment plan.  It may include the company’s reputation for reception in outlying areas.

Companies do all sorts of things to create the right perception in the minds of the right customers.  It’s these activities that we call “marketing.”

Your customer’s perception of your product is formed by the sum of hundreds or thousands of factors. So you need EVERYONE in the company to have a deep understanding of the customer. When every employee understands how your customer decides to choose your product over a competitive one, and they understand how their actions will either contribute to it or subtract from it, then everyone is marketing.

If there is indeed a need for a CMO position, and I do mean “if,” the job’s primary responsibility is to infect everyone in the company with such an understanding and focus. That, in my opinion, is what Drucker had in mind.

This leads us neatly to # 2: The CMO is expected to fix problems whose roots are in the neighbor’s yard.

A precondition for customer-focus infection is that the company be clear about and organized around one simple idea that captures the imagination and hearts of BOTH it’s employees AND its customers. Formulating and clarifying this idea is not the job of the CMO, although he certainly should contribute.  That’s the CEOs job.

More so, the CEO is responsible for ensuring that everything consistent with the core idea is encouraged and everything inconsistent is exorcised. No mercy.  We call this leadership.

A great example is the way Issy Sharp built The Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts into an international stalwart. I explain this in more detail in my strategy white paper “Spitting in the Wind: A Single Obvious Insight to Focus and Sharpen Your Strategy.  Skip to section 5 if you’re in a rush.  But do go back to the beginning for the clearest explanation of strategy you’ll ever read.

And so what often happens is the CEO fails to provide the company with a clear direction, a simple crystalline unifying idea, and then expects the CMO to compensate with a variety of “creative” marketing ideas. Well, that won’t work. A band-aid won’t help your flu.

Instead of helping CMOs, and CEOs understand this fundamental structural contradiction, consulting and research groups such as Forrester offer cryptic and supercilious advice such as:

Forrester argues that the consumer-centric, all-digital, media-fragmented century means that the CMO of the future must answer to a higher calling than they currently do by becoming a brand steward and not just a marketer.

The report suggests: “In doing so, the CMO will reposition marketing as the steward of the brand experience across all parts of the company. It is the CMO who must connect the company to the consumer, based not on the company’s needs, but on the customers’ needs. It is nothing less than transforming the CMO from integrator to orchestrator.”

Smoke, mirrors and misdirection like this only add bars to the cage.

One last thought: Remember how the CIO was singled out as only ten months behind the CMO? Well, that job has similar structural perils.  Maybe we’ll get to them another time.

Thought provoking?  Comment below.

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About The Author

Dov Gordon

Dov Gordon helps consultants and coaches get clients - consistently.