Why scrutiny of the CMO title may be a good thing

In its 2020 predictions for CMOs, Forrester expects many firms will continue eliminating the title, which might be good for business.

What do the global CMOs at Johnson & Johnson, McDonald’s and Uber all have in common? In recent months, their positions have all been eliminated.

In some cases, as with Johnson & Johnson, the lead marketer’s responsibilities have been redistributed among other members of the c-suite. At McDonald’s, the departure of CMO Silvia Lagnado in July sparked the creation of two new roles – SVP of global marketing and SVP of marketing technology – at the fast food chain. In other instances, new roles like chief growth officer (CGO) or chief customer officer (CCO) have sprung up in their place.

Forrester, which predicted the rise of more chief growth officers last year, expects that 2020 will see more of the same in its latest annual CMO predictions.

“The real-time, data-intense reality of the digital age has turned the CMO from a brand-building or even direct marketing boss into a generator of customer outcomes,” notes the firm’s report. “But the reality is that most CMOs haven’t effectively navigated this transition. 2020 marks the beginning of a final desperate fight for survival.”

In spite of the rhetoric, Forrester notes that this doesn’t signal bad news for CMOs. In fact, the firm predicts it could signal that marketing as a discipline has found renewed importance throughout the entire organization. “Counterintuitively,” the authors write, “eliminating the CMO position sets the brand free from the confines of marketing, reuniting it with the business.”

The CMO title – as understood as being limited to marketing – is flawed, says Keith Johnston, VP and research director at Forrester. “More proxy titles are a real possibility until there’s continuity in the decisions and budgets that deliver on the customer’s total experience, and the value delivered.”

All major brands are taking a hard look at the role, he says, whether it means moving the CMO up, out the door or into “more rational” roles like CGO or CCO, positions that are “bigger than marketing and innately clear.”

“And some may eliminate it for a time to recalibrate the job, rid themselves of some history, then higher with a modern set of standards and expectations that will guide the hire and shift a new mindset in the C-suite,” Johnston says.

Karen Howe, founder of creative consultancy The Township, wonders whether the trend isn’t merely about semantics. “We love to rebrand roles and titles often without a significant change in responsibility,” she said in an email to strategy. “I have long felt that the title of CMO has not commanded the respect it deserves within many organizations.”

Similarly, David Pullara, a marketing expert and business consultant whose own role as CMO of the Hill Street Beverage Company was eliminated in July (with those duties being handed to the chief commercial officer as a result of changing business imperatives), believes the impact CMOs can have is diminished when their scope is limited to marketing communications.

“Do you know what a great marketer calls a ‘growth marketer’? A marketer,” Pullara says. “I don’t know any great marketers who aren’t constantly focused on driving growth.”

Pullara believes the CMOs who will be “fighting for survival” are those who think of marketing as “creating Cannes-worthy advertising and maximizing the number of Instagram followers” and those “working for companies who aren’t able or willing to give the CMO the level of scope and responsibility necessary to effectively drive growth.”

Over the next year and beyond, Forrester believes the marketers that will succeed are those who are accountable for a wide array of activities, including brand, communications, sales, customer experience and tech, enabling them to influence the entire customer experience.

“For those companies who never fully understood or accepted the role of marketing within their organizations, eliminating the CMO and replacing it with a chief growth officer is actually a positive development,” Pullara says, “because it effectively elevates the function of the CMO to where it should have been all along, even while eliminating the CMO title itself.”

In its predictions, Forrester points to KFC CMO Andrea Zahumensky, whose remit includes innovation, marketing, operations, media and sales, as an example of the “future-proofed” CMO. Though the research firm expects only 10% of execs with CMO titles to raise to this level, it anticipates 2020 will “clarify the CMO role – and one designted leader will be responsible for all that surrounds the customer.”