Three traits of a successful CMO

The CMA's John Wiltshire explains how chief marketers can deliver the best results for their organizations.
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By John Wiltshire

A recent article from Bain & Company, entitled “How CEOs can solve the CMO dilemma,” filled me with part despair, part incredulity. It suggests there are different types of CMOs – some creative, some digitally oriented, some with general managerial skills – but that CEOs “should not expect all three.” The article states that chief executives should determine what’s most important and pick a combination of two archetypes (to create a “CMO hybrid”) who will serve their specific business needs.

I’ve had the great fortune to work with marketing leaders across a range of industries, from organizations large and small. Time and again, this experience has unequivocally shown me that CMOs can be more than just two archetypes. They are far more than that. They are leaders. They are innovators. And, ultimately, they are business builders.

When CEOs seek out CMOs with the following traits, business outcomes will improve, CEO-CMO relationships will be stronger and CMO turnover will decrease.

Fuelled by community

Recognizing one’s own imperfections is one of the clearest indications of a good leader – and of an effective CMO. The strongest performers are those who not only know what they know, but also what they don’t, and put their trust in a community of partners, employees, agencies and tools that round out their own skill sets to deliver the best possible outcomes.

In our latest Digital Pulse Survey, we found that while marketers are continuing to execute many digital tactics in-house, 50% increased their reliance on agencies in 2019 and 30% consider their agencies to be the experts. This isn’t just a demonstration of humility and knowing when to delegate, it’s about understanding the strategic direction of an organization and embracing the holistic, community-driven view towards marketing that’s required to achieve the company’s goals.

Building a community also requires strong internal relationships, particularly within the c-suite. CMOs should have a seat at the strategy table from the beginning – not just when a campaign is launching or a product rollout is underway. How do they get to that table? Relationships. Having the ear of the CEO is a must, but a good CMO also understands how marketing supports and depends on other areas of the business, from operations to HR to finance. Being forward-thinking, inclusive and focused on relationships is essential for today’s CMO.

Committed to innovation

Disruptors are making inroads into nearly every industry. While I tend to think that the invasion of scale-ups can be a bit overblown, the reality is that innovation has become a hot-button issue – and a major priority – in the c-suites of large organizations looking to ward off new entrants to their markets.

Most company executives look to the CMO to be innovative, challenge the status quo and stay ahead of the customer. Marketing requires both inductive and deductive thought processes, along with a healthy dose of risk-taking. We read about leaders of disruptor companies “failing fast” and making big splashes, but extreme risk-taking isn’t realistic for most CMOs. Instead, great CMOs dabble before they dive and always have something in the incubator, whether it’s a new product, an innovative media type, a revised brand promise or an operational tactic that drives and fosters creativity.

Essential to all of this is execution, which means identifying the difference between ideation and innovation. Talented people can come up with great ideas, but what matters most is the ability to put them into action.

Driven by performance

At the end of the day, money talks, and CMOs are only as strong as company results – because when business isn’t strong, marketing is often the first function to face cuts. The best way to avoid this is to demonstrate how marketing spend contributes to long-term value growth.

Understanding customers will always be key, and that extends beyond their view of a company’s product or service. For example, today’s customers want responsible, value-added use of their personal data. CMOs need to strike the delicate balance between maximizing revenue and protecting the organization’s brand, as customers won’t trust companies who are perceived to be careless or intrusive with their personal information.

CMOs must be known in the c-suite for standing up for the need to take actions that develop long-term brand value, especially when these actions are in competition with activities that only generate short-term revenue. This is especially important in the digital age.

When it comes to belt-tightening, there are many ways to scale back and prioritize – such as putting retention above acquisition or doubling down on successful campaigns – but the key message is clear: Spend, but spend wisely. Finance is not the CMO’s primary role, but a good CMO understands key financial priorities and can use financial terminology to show and justify ROI.

The marketing profession is evolving more rapidly than ever before. We need strategic leaders with longer tenure to ensure that companies and brands stay relevant and that the marketing function performs to its fullest capacity. We also need leaders who embrace and celebrate innovation, keep business results top of mind and ultimately drive forward the profession, their organizations and the Canadian economy.

John Wiltshire is president and CEO of the Canadian Marketing Association.