What is driving the debate about the future of the CMO?

01 Oct 2019

The decision by Coca-Cola to eliminate its CMO role at the end of 2017 triggered an ongoing evaluation and debate over the role of marketing leadership, which has been growing in organisational stature since the advent of digital technologies.

At the time it made the announcement, Coca-Cola said part of the rationale of the restructure - which involved much more than just the CMO - was the need to turn the business into a "growth-oriented and consumer-centered” business.

Since that time, the volume of the drumbeat around the role of CMOs has only increased.

Students of the C-suite will see a familiar story here. In the early 2000’s CIOs faced the same scrutiny - contenting with Career is Over jokes for almost a decade.

In fact, what was happening with the CIO role then, and is likely happening with the CMO role now is a natural process of evolution that reflects its growing prestige and responsibility.

In the case of IT leaders, the role ultimately split into two parts - CIOs and CTOs.

Rather than taking bets on the future of the CMO, we decided to try and understand what is driving the discussion.

We asked Liz Miller, Senior Vice President, Marketing at the Chief Marketing Officer Council where the debate is coming from.

Founded in 2001, the CMO Council describes itself as the premiere peer-powered network for senior marketing decision-makers.

According to Miller, “What's happening is a really interesting phenomenon, because the role has become so big that it has to splinter to some degree.”

For context; she says that at the time the CMO Council formed almost two decades ago, B2C marketing was simply a function of advertising since advertising was the largest part of the responsibility, while on the B2B side it was largely about sales enablement “Over time the role evolved slowly. “All that changed mid-decade due to a remarkable confluence of circumstances, says Miller.

She said the introduction of the iPhone, the arrival of AWS, and the emergence of a dynamically different marketplace for not just digital, but for API’s which facilitated the free flow of data between formerly isolated information silos was transformative.

“You also have Facebook hitting a million users. This all happens in 2007. And it's kind of this weird happenstance that all of these collide the year before the global recession really begins to take off. So you kind of have all of the pieces in place.”

As a result of the GFC, marketing budgets disintegrated. Research conducted at the time by the CMO Council found that by 2009 and 2010 marketing budgets had been decimated around the world.

“All of a sudden, we're sitting there with 25 per cent of our budget, 100 per cent of our customers, and 200 per cent of expectations!”

It is often said that evolution thrives at the margins, and, according to Miller, it was within this hyper challenging environment that the rapid acceleration in the evolution of the CMO role really started.

“The role of the CMO evolved in leaps because now all of a sudden we are expected to advance digital transformation, get on the data bandwagon, make sure that we're talking to the customer, find millions of ways to do more things for less, figure out what this whole social media machine is all about, and get all of that unstructured data working.”

For many marketing leaders it felt like their jobs changed overnight.

CMOs were told, “You control all the digital channels, you control what the customer says, you control all this budget. And now we're going to take all this money away from you but go figure out how to make our business evolve.”

From this huge expectation came a revelation for many CMOs about exactly what this meant for them personally.

“They [CMOs] started saying, ‘hey, wait a minute. I don't just do brand, I don't just do advertising. I don't just do communications. I do brand, customer, communications, digital, ecommerce, and the list keeps going on and on. I own all these different things. I'm juggling all these pieces.’”

In those circumstances, says Miller, the title of CMO starts to feel very small.

“The expectation on CMOs for the last several years has been to drive growth,” she says.

That is also borne out in the research of the CMO Council.

“When we asked marketers, what is your mandate for the next 12 months, between 64 per cent and 77 per cent said the mandate is to drive growth.”

They are tasked with growth with existing customers and growth with new customers, along with market share, top line and bottom-line growth, she says.

“Suddenly Chief Growth Officer - that sounds pretty cool.”

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