Historically, nearly one-third to half of new chief marketing officers appointed annually are first-timers. Since the pandemic and the emergence of social media as a storytelling platform, that number is rapidly growing. And with CMOs under pressure to meet high revenue targets with insufficient resources, the role has increasingly become complicated for novices and veterans alike.
Korn Ferry has published a guide, ‘You’re A CMO. Now What?’ to help incoming executives being appointed to the CMO role for the first time. In it, seasoned marketing leaders share their tips on succeeding in the C-suite, the advice they wish they’d gotten about being a CMO and more. The following are excerpts from Korn Ferry’s conversations.
Korn Ferry: What was the largest adjustment you had to make after becoming a CMO for the first time?
Greg Revelle, senior executive vice president, chief marketing officer at Kohl’s:
For me, it was understanding how the CEO and board of directors viewed success. You have to switch your mindset to think about marketing from their perspective. Marketing is geared toward sales growth, while boards and CEOs, and CFOs for that matter, want sales and efficiency. Being able to drive sales while giving money back to the organization is how CMOs get credibility in the C-suite.
Andrea Brimmer, chief marketing and public relations officer at Ally Financial:
I’d say it was realizing that it is not only OK to have an —it is expected. In fact, being one-dimensional and limiting your opinion to marketing makes you a target in the C-suite, whereas adding a critical voice to the room creates value.
Jim Berra, CMO at Royal Caribbean International:
It’s not about being a subject-matter expert anymore. It’s about being able to connect marketing to the larger organizational imperative. You are building agendas and priorities for the entire organization, so I’d say just as important as having an opinion outside of marketing is soliciting the input of other leaders about marketing.
Marisa Thalberg, EVP, chief brand and marketing officer at Lowe’s:
I agree. CMOs have to be a champion of the function in the C-suite but also recognize that they are showing up as part of the management of the whole company. You have to know when to speak with a functional hat and when to speak with an enterprise hat.
Barbara Goose, former CMO at John Hancock:
It’s important to understand that as CMO, it isn’t just about growth but what kind of growth. Not every company or division has the same growth mandate. Some may not even want growth, just greater profitability. Not being aligned on what the organization wants can lead to problems.
KF: What advice do you wish you’d gotten about being a CMO?
Revelle: I wish someone had told me that what gets you into a CMO role isn’t what will make you successful as a CMO.
Brimmer: Don’t be overprotective about the brand. CMOs can get into adversarial relationships with other business leaders by thinking theirs is the only voice that matters when it comes to the brand. The reality is that the more committed people are to the brand, the easier it makes things for the CMO. When everyone has ownership, there is more pride across the organization.
Berra: My advice to CMOs is to figure out how to turn marketing from a cost center to a revenue generator.
Thalberg: As a new CMO, you first need to be a student of the company, the organization, and, of course, continually the industry. At the same time, a big part of the role is to be a teacher to your team, but just as importantly to your peers and your board, so they can be brought along on the “whys” behind marketing, not just the “whats.”
Goose: You need to break down for other C-suite leaders what the customer journey looks like—whom you reached, why they acted on a particular message, and how that influenced their decision. I find that capturing our work in video is the best way to help other C-suite leaders digest and see through to the analytics.
KF: What are some unique challenges that first-time CMOs face today that you perhaps didn’t face?
Berra: The level of accountability, which was already increasing, totally accelerated with COVID. CEOs and boards want to see how marketing activities are driving new customers, sales and margins. CMOs today are under intense pressure to prove out what they are doing. You can’t overinvest in customer feedback; things are changing so fast you need immediate feedback loops.
Revelle: Customers are much more engaged with social issues and they demand transparency, so CMOs are constantly going to be questioned about their brand’s stance on a host of issues. Understanding these complex issues from a variety of perspectives, and responding appropriately, is critically important. You have to work with all of your stakeholders and ultimately have to make the right decision for your organization.
Goose: Marketers have to reinvent connections and engage consumers in ways they never have before. It’s a constant process of testing, learning, and optimizing, with the expectation that results will get better over time. There’s no such thing as a yearly plan or a set-it-and-forget-it mentality anymore.
Brimmer: That’s a major challenge because people are incredibly fatigued. With budget cuts and layoffs, marketing departments are spread incredibly thin.
Thalberg: Particularly in times of business crisis, the marketing budget can be a prime target for cutbacks. As a leader, it’s important to be able to bring advocacy for what the function needs with as much concrete modeling as possible regarding what the impact to the business will be with and without the proper funding. When investments aren’t optimal, it takes a combination of creativity to work with what you have, as well as transparency about trade-offs.
Read Korn Ferry’s full conversation with the panel of CMOs here.