How CEOs Can Solve the CMO Dilemma
At a Glance
  • CEOs and boards tend to have only a vague understanding of the attributes they should be looking for in a chief marketing officer.
  • That’s due in part to their reliance on three archetypes for CMOs: the creative iconoclast, the professional general manager and the digital wizard.
  • Each archetype has key strengths, but no CMO excels in all three areas. Instead, CEOs and boards should agree on the business needs of the company before launching a CMO search.
  • In addition, each CMO needs a lieutenant and a team who will complement his or her skills.

Like professional athletes at the mercy of team owners always looking for the next superstar, chief marketing officers appear to have the shortest tenure of any member of the C-suite. The median life span in the role was 28 months in 2018, dropping from the 31-month median tenure a year earlier, according to Spencer Stuart. While some departing CMOs are tapped for internal roles beyond marketing, such as general manager, more often than not they are shown the door and move on to their next gig.

Part of the reason for this costly turnover: CMOs face substantial pressure from CEOs and boards to quickly shift massive organizations to new types of marketing. With consumers migrating to digital channels, new digital tools and platforms popping up every month, and customers bombarded by a cacophony of marketing messages, it’s a tough environment to understand, let alone master.

Still, despite the revolving door, we don’t believe that most CMOs are underperforming. Instead, we find that CEOs and boards have only a vague understanding of the role, or of what their next CMO should bring to the table. Busy senior executives tend to rely on shorthand mental models when making decisions. In the case of the CMO, three competing archetypes inform—and too often cloud—the process of selecting the best person for a specific company. The problem is that the essential skill sets for each of the archetypes cannot be found in a single individual, so CEOs and boards often don’t know which key attributes they should be looking for.

Creative Iconoclast, Professional GM, Digital Wizard

The three CMO archetypes

The first archetype is the classic creative iconoclast, the visionary who personally comes up with the next big idea. (Think Don Draper in the TV series Mad Men.) This role traces its roots to the early days of mass advertising and companies’ assumption that true marketing leadership would come from a creative or ad agency. A stint at one of these agencies, or time as creative director at a large company, became a preferred career path to the CMO office.

The second archetype is the professional general manager of marketing. While a number of companies have taken this route, Procter & Gamble gets most of the credit (or blame) for “professionalizing” the marketer’s role. P&G expected marketers to follow a well-established, somewhat cutthroat career path, which ensured they had a solid understanding of the discipline by the time they landed in a senior role. For many years, having P&G on one’s résumé (or such rivals as Clorox or Coca-Cola) was a prerequisite to landing a big-company CMO role. CEOs and boards could trust these hires to manage the marketing department as a business function akin to finance or human resources.

The most recent archetype to emerge is the digital wizard, an executive with a background in digital marketing or even in the data and analytics side of the craft. For CEOs and boards, many of whom aren’t versed in digital, this choice offers reassurance that they can catch up to the digital revolution. They perceive this type of CMO as even more focused on results than the general manager archetype, possibly because of the wizards’ sometimes dismissive attitude toward traditional brand marketing and their proud commitment to do only what the data supports. The preferred résumé stamps for a digital wizard include Google, Facebook or digitally native advertising firms. In fact, a few major companies recently have eliminated the CMO role and hired technologists to run marketing—a move akin to firing the CFO or head of HR because they can’t write the code behind their enterprise software.

Not surprisingly, any pure archetype will likely fail in today’s marketing battles. At the same time, companies shouldn’t expect to find a CMO who excels at more than two of the three core strengths. A former CMO, faced with advising a board on a new hire, called such a person a “purple squirrel”—something you can describe perfectly but does not exist in nature.

Getting the combination right

CEOs and boards thus face a dilemma. They can expect their CMO to emphasize creativity and innovation, to run marketing like a well-oiled machine, or to transform the department into a digital, agile system. But they should not expect all three. Instead, they should agree on the business needs of the company before launching a CMO search, to ensure that the trade-offs are made explicit and, to a degree, remedied.

Specifically, the trade-offs line up along the following dimensions:

  • Creative iconoclast + general manager = a marketing department that’s cool, edgy and well run. It may struggle, though, to reach digital-native consumers. A company should hire a CMO with this combination of skills if it needs to put the brand in front of customers often, and when the brand itself is a key asset.
  • Creative iconoclast + digital wizard = a hip and digitally savvy marketing function. On the downside, the company might overpay for marketing or for customers, because digital economics often make marketing indicators look better than they actually are. Hire this CMO for a disruptive marketing strategy, similar to the approach taken by digitally native insurgents.
  • General manager + digital wizard = a well-run, digital organization, but one that may become “brand vulnerable.” Brand love and loyalty go hand in hand, so competitors with a more resonant brand may be able to take this company’s customers over the long run. Hire this CMO when your business depends on transactional marketing leading to onetime or infrequent purchases.
Getting the combination right

Any CMO needs a team to complement his or her skills, just as CEOs and founders who are strategic visionaries rely on chief operating officers to get things done. With that in mind:

  • A creative iconoclast/general manager will need a second-in-command who is adept with technology. Hiring a first-among-equals digital leader will be critical.
  • A creative iconoclast/digital wizard will need the equivalent of a COO on the team to make sure the department can get things done.
  • A general manager/digital wizard will need an outstanding creative director who is part of marketing leadership and plays a role in strategy as well as brand and design.

CMOs have a tough enough task without pressure to be what they are not, or to implement an errant path on marketing for the company. Their odds of success will increase when CEOs and boards carefully consider which flesh-and-blood individual makes the best fit with their organization.

Brian Dennehy is an expert vice president with Bain & Company’s Customer Strategy & Marketing practice. Clare Gordon and Kenji Govaers are partners with Bain’s Consumer Products practice. The authors are based, respectively, in Seattle, London and Tokyo.


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