Why Today’s CMOs Have to Be Chief Growth Officers

Why Today’s CMOs Have to Be Chief Growth Officers

Increasingly, Chief Marketing Officers are being called upon to help their organizations manage change and drive new growth for their companies. That can present a whole new set of challenges for any CMO looking to succeed. Here’s some advice on where to get started.

Today’s CMO is a hot commodity. In some circles, the position has replaced COO as the office to have when you’re being groomed for chief executive. Yet, at the same time that CMOs are enjoying the limelight, there’s disturbing evidence to suggest that too many Chief Marketers are modeling their careers on James Dean – living fast and dying young. According to a survey conducted by executive recruiter Spencer Stuart, the average tenure for a CMO is 23.6 months. In some industries, such as apparel, that number drops to as little as ten months. And while those numbers might reflect a fair bit of job-hopping, a short tenure doesn’t typically suggest success.

Seeking to make their mark, many new CMOs start by implementing the kind of quick changes that let their boss know they’re taking action.  The marketing department gets reorganized.  The agencies come up for review.  Perhaps the logo gets a freshening.  Quick hits tell the world that there’s a new sheriff in town – but they often do little more than that.

The whole idea of having a CMO isn’t just to elevate the marketing function within the corporate hierarchy; it reflects an underlying shift in philosophy.  Often by the time a CMO comes on board, a company has already pared their operations down to near skeleton crews, and is finding that it can no longer rely on increased efficiencies to drive profitability.  Looking for answers, CEOs then appoint a marketing officer in an attempt to “fix the growth thing.”  A hundred days into their job, a new CMO may find that all that their quick hits did was buy time to figure out what really needs to happen.  Now, they need to work on longer lasting results.

What does a more sustainable effort look like?  Through trial and error, a few patterns of success are emerging about what it takes to make it past the first six months of quick hits.

Get Back to Your Essence

Most CMOs find themselves dealing with brands and organizations that have long outlived the very people that first made them great.  While that’s a testament to the extensibility of modern corporations, it may also be part of the reason why a company has lost its previous magic.  Indeed, so many of the hottest names in marketing today enjoy the clarity of vision that comes from a charismatic founder.  The brand power behind Starbucks, Nike, Apple, Virgin, and Amazon are as much the stories of Howard Schultz, Phil Knight, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos.  As founders, those individuals provide a gut-level sense of mission and focus that can energize a company and create passion around a brand.  That’s great if you work for one of those companies.  But what happens when your visionary leader gets hit by a bus?  Or when your company’s a hundred years old?  In those cases, it’s often incumbent upon the CMO to help refocus a brand on what continues to make it great.

One of the first things a CMO can do is help a company to start getting back to its essence.  That means more than doing a positioning or brand essence study.  It means delving deep into the DNA of your company, and trying to uncover the soul of what makes it great – even when that greatness is temporarily obscured.

Spend time listening to folks in your marketing organization.  Often, they’re ready with great ideas that will yield quick results – they’ve just been waiting for someone to help them pull the trigger.  These same folks can alert a new CMO to potential pitfalls down the road, and might even become great allies for change.

When Michael Eisner first became CEO of Disney, he spent time walking the halls, hanging out at the amusement parks, and touring the studios.  To every animator, salesperson and custodian he met, he asked the same question: “How did we do this when Walt was still alive?”  Any company that hires a CMO must have done something right in past to get where it is today.  Getting back to that essence can help a CMO to focus a firm on that particular recipe for what makes it great.

Create Widespread Empathy

Ultimately, a CMO’s success isn’t going to rest on a single ad campaign or piece of positioning.  Sustained success is going to require the CMO to get every person in the organization to focus their efforts on those activities that create value in the eyes of customers.  That’s where real growth resides.  Too often, though, that sense of what matters most to end customers gets lost in a forest of confusing data, distracted by contradictory consumer insight work, or strained out through the filter of a bad PowerPoint deck.

What’s really needed is an intuitive sense of empathy – a collective gut feel where every person in an organization has a sense of what matters most to the folks who pay the bills.  Empathy is what helps companies like Harley-Davidson and Nike to stay in lockstep with what matters most to their customers.  In that sense, a CMO’s long-term success rests on their ability to provide meaningful tools for creating that sense of empathy.  A CMO’s job is as much about shaping the culture of a company as the VP of Human Resources.

When Kathy Tierney took over as head of Smith & Hawken, one of the first things she did was to get folks to spend time in the gardens that were planted behind Smith & Hawken’s corporate headquarters.  The idea was to get everyone from the folks in purchasing to the people in design to have a better gut sense about how real gardeners saw the world.

Creating a widespread sense of empathy goes beyond traditional voice of the customer work.  And while it doesn’t always get captured in market research reports or product development documents, it pervades these companies’ cultures, allowing individuals to make better business decisions at all levels in the organization.

Start Developing New Opportunities

Having planted the seeds of success, CMOs need to focus on developing new sources of revenue.  Some of that is going to come from the folks responsible for new product development.  Yet much of that growth might lie outside of the current mandate of product developers.

As the de facto Chief Growth Officer, CMOs need to keep an eye out for new businesses that their company might not be in, but ought to be in the near future.  In that case, it’s useful to move beyond thinking about new products to consider new opportunity spaces: new markets to appeal to, new categories that are adjacent to existing ones, and even new businesses that could result from collaboration with strategic partners.

For instance, at Nike, the Explore group is dedicated to looking beyond the rest of the company’s current product horizon. Outside of any one division, this group looks beyond shoes to capture new areas of growth. They’ve helped Nike to move into areas like watches, sunglasses, and even MP3 players.

The fact is that most folks in any organization don’t have the bandwidth to consider the outlying opportunities.  Yet it’s central to CMO’s mandate for growth that at least a few people are dedicated to scoping this out.

CMOs are often called on to help drive top-line growth in a sustainable way.  In the beginning, a few quick tactical moves can help prove to the rest of the company that you have what it takes.  To thrive over the long term, savvy CMOs move quickly to plant the seeds for long term change.  By following up with efforts to get to know their company, their customer, their best sources of potential growth, the most successful CMOs ensure that they’ll hold onto their job long enough to see lasting results.

Dev Patnaik


Dev Patnaik is the CEO of Jump Associates, the leading independent strategy and innovation firm. He’s a board member of Conscious Capitalism. Dev has been a trusted advisor to CEOs at some of the world’s most admired companies, including Starbucks, Target, Nike, Universal and Virgin.