By Kimberly A. Whitler and Neil Morgan
In 2012 a leading retailer began looking for a new chief marketing officer. The job description made the opening sound exciting: The new CMO would play a big, important role, leading the company’s efforts to boost revenues and profits. It seemed like the kind of opportunity any would-be CMO might desire.
Sure enough, the company landed a seasoned, talented executive from the consumer-packaged-goods industry, who came on board determined to make his mark.
But a year later the new CMO was feeling deeply frustrated. Given the job description, his experience, and his conversations with the recruiter and the chain’s CEO, he’d assumed he’d have the authority to create a strategy for driving growth. To his surprise, his role was limited mostly to marketing communications, including advertising and social media. He had no responsibility for (and limited influence over) product launches, pricing, and store openings. The problem, he told us, wasn’t that his skills prevented him from meeting the company’s goals; it was that the job was so poorly designed—and there was such a mismatch between the CMO’s authority and the CEO’s expectations—that it would be difficult for anyone to succeed in it. Soon after he spoke with us, the CMO left the company.
In our research into what makes CMOs effective, we’ve heard stories like this more often than we should. To us, they’re evidence that something is going very wrong in the relationship between CEOs and CMOs. A 2012 global survey by the Fournaise Marketing Group highlights the tensions between them: The results reveal that 80% of CEOs don’t trust or are unimpressed with their CMOs. (In comparison, just 10% of the same CEOs feel that way about their CFOs and CIOs.) CMOs also sense a serious problem. In our own surveys, 74% of them say they believe their jobs don’t allow them to maximize their impact on the business.
This troubled relationship helps explain why CMOs have the highest turnover in the C-suite. According to an analysis by Korn Ferry, they stay in office 4.1 years on average, while CEOs average 8 years; CFOs, 5.1 years; CHROs, 5 years; and CIOs, 4.3 years. Our own research indicates that churn rates may be even worse: We found that 57% of CMOs have been in their position three years or less.
But unlike CFOs, CHROs, and CIOs, whose roles are primarily inward facing, CMOs have a direct effect on the way customers engage with the firm. When new CMOs enter companies, they often change the strategic direction—which means creating new positioning, product packaging, and ad campaigns, usually at considerable expense. If job dissatisfaction or underperformance leads to a revolving door in the CMO’s office, companies can experience internal disruptions, not to mention major recruiting and severance costs.
We believe that a great deal of CMO turnover stems from poor job design. Any company can make a bad hire, but when responsibilities, expectations, and performance measures are not aligned and realistic, it sets a CMO up to fail. In this article we’ll outline the four steps CEOs should take to end this dysfunctional pattern. We’ll also describe how to match the right person to the CMO job and how CEOs, executive recruiters, and CMO candidates can all work together to maximize the odds of CMO success.
Step 1: Define the Role
Let’s start with a simple question: What does a CMO actually do? Surprisingly, there is no clear, widely accepted answer.
In our research we’ve interviewed more than 300 executive recruiters, CEOs, and CMOs; conducted multiple CMO surveys; performed an analysis of 170 CMO job descriptions at large firms; and reviewed over 500 LinkedIn profiles of CMOs. We’ve discovered extreme variations in the responsibilities CMOs are given and in the skills, training, and experience of the people who occupy the role. (Note that we use the term “CMO” generically to refer to a company’s top marketing executive; at some firms the job may have a different title, such as executive vice president of marketing.)
Most CMOs, we’ve observed, have a few areas of core responsibility. More than 90% are responsible for marketing strategy and implementation, and more than 80% control brand strategy and customer metrics. But beyond that, the range of duties—from pricing to sales management, public relations to e‑commerce, product development to distribution—is mind-boggling.
Of course, not all CMO positions should be the same. Companies have different needs, challenges, and goals, and the CMO’s role has to reflect those realities. Before even considering candidates for the job, a CEO must decide which kind of CMO would be best for the company. In our research we’ve identified three distinct types.
Some CMOs focus on strategy. They take the lead on up-front decisions about the firm’s positioning and then translate those decisions into the design of new products, services, and experiences. Often they manage the customer insight and analytics functions. In essence, strategy-focused CMOs spearhead a company’s innovation efforts. Accounting for 31% of CMOs in our research, they’re common in multibrand firms and in some B2B service firms where a centralized marketing group helps set firm-level strategy.
Most CMOs focus on commercialization. They have a downstream role and work primarily on using marketing communications to sell the products, services, and experiences that others design. Typically, their responsibilities include overseeing traditional and digital efforts to create revenue-growing relationships with consumers. Nearly half of CMOs (46%) have this kind of role. Common in firms where a function other than marketing is central to success, commercializers play a supporting role to the function that drives innovation (such as engineers in tech firms).
The third kind of CMO handles both strategy and commercialization responsibilities in an enterprise-wide role focused on the design and implementation of strategy. Significantly, such CMOs have P&L responsibility and the broadest range of duties, including innovation, sales, distribution, and pricing. In our research 23% of CMOs have an enterprise-wide role. They tend to be common in single-brand firms and some consumer-packaged-goods companies. Because of the scope of their responsibilities and the organization-wide nature of their impact, marketers with this kind of experience have historically been seen as strong general managers and are often tapped for CEO roles at other firms.
How can CEOs determine which type of CMO is appropriate for their firms? They should take into account the following three external factors:
1. The degree to which consumer insight needs to drive firm strategy.
When generating consumer insight is a critical competency of the firm and determines the design of products, services, and experiences, the CMO role should skew toward a strategic or enterprise-wide focus. There’s so much variation within industries that it’s difficult to say definitively which kinds of companies fall into this category. But marketing’s role should lean toward commercialization if finance, technology, manufacturing, or another inward-facing function leads a firm’s strategy. This is often the situation in heavy manufacturing, industrials, technology, higher education, health care, and B2B firms. In general, when firms believe that their innovations create the need, they are less likely to look to CMOs to set strategy or boost profits.
2. How difficult it is to achieve firm-level growth.
Companies in slow-growing or highly competitive industries are more likely to require a strategy-focused or enterprise-wide type of CMO, who can devise plans for building demand. However, if growth is easier to come by and less of a challenge for the firm, then the commercialization role may be a better fit.
3. The level of dynamic change in the marketplace.
When a company’s business model is shifting or industry boundaries are being redrawn, CMOs with strategic or enterprise-wide responsibilities are likely to be more effective. With their broader knowledge of the environment (consumers, competitors, channel partners, the marketplace) and of their firms’ internal workings (core competencies, strategic direction), they can better help their management teams steer through uncertainty and rethink ways to generate demand.
It’s also imperative for the CEO to consider this set of internal factors:
1. The historical role of the CMO within the firm.
If the company’s top marketing executive has traditionally focused on commercialization, shifting to a strategic or enterprise-wide role will require taking responsibilities away from another function. This becomes problematic if the other function has been managing those areas for a long time and doing it well. While it’s often easier to narrow the CMO’s scope, there are many times when broadening it makes sense. For instance, one CMO in higher education had a commercialization role but was elevated to a strategy role after he identified a solution to his school’s admissions (and thus its growth) challenges. Expanding the CMO’s responsibilities requires significant CEO involvement to communicate expectations and prevent internal backlash, however.
2. The structure of the firm.
If a firm has multiple business units or brands, functional leadership responsibility tends to be dispersed throughout the organization. (Each unit or brand may have its own finance, marketing, and IT leaders.) When this happens, the CMO often helps provide strategic leadership across the corporation. We frequently see this in global, multibrand firms where category or business unit managers have P&L responsibility. However, as the company gets larger and more complex, C-level roles often have to be disaggregated. This is no different for the CMO’s role, which may get divided into several parts, such as chief commercialization officer, chief innovation officer, chief analytics officer, and so on. In contrast, when a firm has a single brand or all of marketing is centralized, it’s easier for the CMO to play an enterprise-wide role.
Step 2: Match Responsibilities to the Job’s Scope
Once the CEO decides where a CMO ought to have an impact, the role’s responsibilities should be aligned accordingly. Almost all CMOs are in charge of brand strategy and insight generation. CMOs with a strategic focus also need to oversee the firm’s “think tank” efforts (which originate innovations and product designs) but have little to no responsibility for converting strategy into tactics such as ads or marketing communications. CMOs in a commercialization role should have extensive responsibility for developing and converting the brand strategy into marketing plans that drive sales (through social, digital, advertising, and content initiatives; events; partnerships; and so on) but little responsibility for up-front, firm-level strategic decisions. And CMOs in an enterprise-wide P&L role should have responsibility for the whole process.
Alignment of responsibilities is the critical area where mistakes are made. It’s common for companies to describe a role in which the CMO is expected to change the overall performance of the firm, but when you examine the job duties closely, it’s clear the CMO has only commercialization functions. In other words, expectations typically far exceed the actual authority given the CMO.
That problem is often compounded when CEOs are wooing candidates who already have good jobs. While overpromising and “up-selling” are common in recruitment across many functions, our research suggests that they can be a bigger issue in marketing—because of the general confusion and lack of uniform expectations about what a CMO does and the knowledge and skill differences among marketing executives.
Step 3: Align Metrics with Expectations
Once the job’s role and responsibilities have been nailed down, the CEO needs to define how the CMO’s success will be measured.
A CMO in a well-designed commercialization role will be held accountable for meeting budgetary goals; for the outcomes of projects (such as a website redesign); for the results produced by marketing programs (for example, increased traffic to stores); and for management outcomes (like improved staff satisfaction and performance). In contrast, CMOs in strategy roles should be held accountable for related elements of firm performance, such as increases in revenue or same-store sales, in addition to meeting budgets and producing management outcomes. And of course, CMOs overseeing P&Ls should be measured on the top- and bottom-line business results (and on budgetary, project, and management outcomes).
This approach may sound like common sense, but it’s surprising how infrequently it’s followed. Only 22% of the job descriptions we studied mentioned how the CMO would be measured or held accountable, and only 2% had a specific section that clearly articulated job expectations. While 90% made some mention of expectations, they typically were vague. The head of marketing for one technology company, for example, was supposed to “help define and execute an aggressive growth strategy for the company.” What exactly is the measure of success for that? Is it producing a strategic plan? Or some sort of growth target (and if so, how is it measured)? If metrics and goals aren’t predetermined, how do CMOs know if they have hit their targets?
Step 4: Find Candidates with the Right Fit
Even when the CMO role is well defined, assessing candidates can be a challenge, because their training and experience vary so much. Marketers lack the professional certifications required of lawyers and accountants. Only 6% of CMOs we looked at in our research had degrees in marketing. Although 44% had MBAs, their educational backgrounds varied a lot. They included degrees in engineering, economics, mathematics, philosophy, political science, psychology, and other subjects. Consequently, the type of experience and training marketing executives gain during the formative part of their careers—and specifically, whether they have served primarily under CMOs in strategy, commercialization, or enterprise-wide P&L roles—will largely determine which roles they are best suited to later in their careers.
Another stumbling point, in our analysis, is that in almost all CMO job descriptions there are significant gaps between the responsibility given and the experience required. For instance, 39 of the job descriptions we studied indicated that the CMO would oversee product strategy but then neglected to require experience in that area. Sometimes the gaps ran in the other direction. Thirty-four of the descriptions required candidates to have direct-marketing experience even though the jobs didn’t include any direct-marketing duties.
To understand how confusing this mismatch can be, consider the description for the CMO job at a top manufacturer. This firm wanted its head of marketing to lead the analysis of what drove customer preferences, develop a superior brand strategy, set the marketing strategy, and oversee implementation of those strategies. However, the actual position included responsibility only for a marketing insights group, a marketing project-management group, and a media group. The description led the reader to believe the CMO’s role was far bigger than it actually was.
Typically, CMOs aren’t given enough authority to do what’s expected of them.
The problem didn’t stop there. The description stated that candidates should have “best-in-class consumer-packaged-goods industry experience” (translation: P&L experience), demonstrated corporate/marketing strategy leadership, sales experience, and more. But the job involved neither P&L nor sales responsibilities, so these requirements made little sense. A better match for the job would have been someone with research and analysis skills, media and digital experience, and a proven ability to develop marketing programs that deliver in-market results.
While the lack of internal consistency may seem obvious, few of the CEOs and CMOs we’ve interviewed recognize that a disconnect exists.
How to Improve Outcomes
Although CEOs express disappointment in their CMOs, they typically don’t realize that they may have played a role in creating the problem. By making sure that the CMO job is designed and staffed correctly, they can increase their own satisfaction with their top marketing executive.
Before looking for a new CMO, a CEO should be sure to answer the following questions:
- What outcomes do we want the CMO to produce, particularly in light of the company’s priorities? Which of the three CMO types do we need? How should this person balance out the management team’s strengths (and weaknesses)?
- What functional responsibility is necessary to realize our vision for the role? Will that level of responsibility really work, given other top management team roles?
- What will success look like? What specific key milestones will the CMO be expected to reach?
- What types of skills and experience are required?
When considering this last question, too many CEOs describe someone who is the “best athlete” rather than the best player for the specific position. It’s important to avoid that temptation. For their part, CMO candidates shouldn’t view the job description as a fait accompli. In our surveys CMOs who say their roles are correctly designed often had a hand in crafting them before accepting their jobs. That indicates how critical it is for CMOs to negotiate the specifics of their responsibilities and expectations.
Before signing on to any CMO position, a candidate should make sure he or she understands the following:
- What is really the CMO’s role in the firm? Is there agreement about this across the C-suite? Do the CEO, CFO, CHRO, and the board all describe the position in the same terms?
- What is really the CMO’s responsibility? Which functions report to the CMO on the org chart, and which don’t? What departmental budget items are the CMO’s responsibility? Are any budgetary areas missing? (Though some firms may balk at sharing budgets with candidates during the hiring process, asking to see them is valid and can serve as a test of whether the firm wants to be transparent about the position’s responsibilities.)
- Are the expectations and performance metrics for the role consistent with the responsibilities and the candidate’s experience? Is the CMO being set up to succeed?
After answering these questions, the candidate should summarize in writing his or her understanding of the role and the expectations and responsibilities involved with it, and share it with both the executive recruiter and the CEO, asking for confirmation that they are all on the same page.
Executive recruiters can use the following questions to guide the process:
- Does the CEO understand the range of CMO roles? Does he or she understand that the position should be designed before a job description is written? Has he or she anticipated how altering the CMO role might affect other C-suite leaders?
- Are expectations, responsibilities, and measures of success consistent with the chosen CMO role? Is that consistency clear in the written job description? Are the skills it outlines in keeping with those expectations and responsibilities, too?
- What type of CMO expertise is the best match for the role the firm has in mind?
- Have prospective CMOs been educated on the different types of roles and the degree to which their own background and skills fit the role in question? (Being open and honest about gaps in preparation for specific positions can help prospective CMOs anticipate challenges and identify experience they should gain.)
As experts in designing CMO roles, executive recruiters must lead, rather than follow, the CEO in talks about the role. But in our interviews with recruiters who focus on CMO placements, we came across only one who had a model for guiding CEOs through a discussion of how to design the right role for the firm. While everyone has a vested interest in helping new CMOs succeed, recruiters have an additional incentive to get it right, since their compensation is traditionally at risk if a candidate they place fails within the first year on the job.
Learning the Hard Way
Together, the authors of this article have spent eight years exploring why CMO hiring so often goes off track. But one of us—Kim—has personal experience with the challenges that result when the design of a CMO role hasn’t been completely thought through.
Kim began her marketing career at Procter & Gamble, where marketers typically have P&L responsibility. As a result, she assumed that all C-level marketing jobs had it. Some years after leaving P&G, she interviewed for an exciting CMO position that the recruiter insisted would be “transformational.” But in the first week at the new company, Kim realized to her surprise that she didn’t have P&L authority. Instead of sitting in strategy-setting meetings, she was trying to figure out if advertising conformed to brand guidelines. This was not what she thought she’d signed up for.
Looking back, Kim made some mistakes that might now seem obvious. She focused on the job description and relied on the recruiter’s assurances instead of asking the right questions during interviews. Had she asked to see org charts and budgets before accepting the company’s offer, she would have quickly realized that the CMO’s responsibility was much narrower than she thought. That would have enabled her to have a pointed discussion with both the executive recruiter and the CEO regarding the importance of role design.
To fix the situation, she worked to change the scope of and expectations for her job. After a couple of in-market wins, she partnered with the COO (who had P&L authority) to design a different role for marketing. She had a terrific CEO who believed that marketing should expand its duties and supported the change. Because the economy was in turmoil, the COO was more than happy to share accountability for financial performance. Over time the key players began expecting marketing to assume more P&L responsibilities, essentially changing the nature of the CMO role.
As Kim’s story shows, it is possible to proactively change the scope of a CMO job after being hired. However, hiring mismatches aren’t good for firms or their executives, and fixing them takes a lot of time and effort. Companies would be better off if CMOs spent their energy doing the jobs they were qualified for from the outset.
Our hope is that our research will help CEOs and CMOs avoid this problem in the future. Everyone—C-suite executives, subordinates, and shareholders—will benefit if a company creates the right CMO role from the beginning and then finds the right kind of person to fill it.
Kimberly A. Whitler is an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, researching the role and contribution of the CMO. She is a Forbes contributor and has written for Ad Age, The CMO Council, and other publication outlets focusing on CMO and executive marketing issues. Prior to this, Ms. Whitler spent nearly 20 years in senior marketing and general management positions and is a 3-time CMO.
Neil Morgan is the PetSmart Distinguished Chair in Marketing at Indiana University.