The Role of the CMO: Obsolete or Reinvented?

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The Changing Role of the Chief Marketing Officer

For more than a decade, the CMO role has been in a state of flux. McKinsey talked about the evolving role of the CMO as far back as 2007. Since that time, there’s been no shortage of experts opining on the changing phenomenon of marketing and, more specifically, the impact these changes have on the C-suite marketing role. Is the role of the CMO on its way out the door for good, or is it simply undergoing a major transformation?

The Last Decade: Shifting Priorities and Opinions

Some have gone as far as to say the CMO, or any number of newer iterations of the role, such as the digital CMO (which arose from the digital transformation), is obsolete. In 2013, for instance, Rikita Puri argued in this post at Hubspot that the digital CMO, a relatively new concept at the time, was already obsolete, pointing out that the success rates of traditional digital technologies (yes, it’s true – we’ve already reached the tipping point at which “traditional” is an appropriate adjective in discussing certain digital trends) are rapidly dwindling. Why? The rise of ad blockers is one likely cause, as well as consumers’ increasing ability to ignore – essentially blocking mentally – the same forms of advertising. Changing role of the CMO

Puri makes the case for digital CMOs to become more inbound-focused, leveraging compelling pull mechanisms that make brands irresistible to consumers. The added bonus is that when fully leveraging the power of inbound marketing, it’s no longer a matter of competing for buyer’s attention in an over-crowded climate; it’s about earning that attention using a philosophy (inbound) that’s grounded in psychology.

In 2015, AdWeek ran an article outlining four trends that will make the CMO obsolete, including:

  • The end of single-channel marketing
  • The growth of the experience economy
  • The rise of the personal narrative
  • The ascent of advocacy

Author Tim Dunn explains that the challenge, at the time, was that many brands were poorly equipped to deliver consistent cross-channel experiences, noting that the many facets of modern businesses existed in silos: brand, e-commerce, retail, product, etc. Dunn proposes a solution: a centralized Chief Experience Officer, tasked with unifying these distinct business units to create a functional, cross-channel experience capable of wowing consumers and fostering brand advocacy.

Less than a year ago, in September 2016, Mike Edwards argued in a LinkedIn post that both the traditional CIO and CMO roles are becoming extinct in the omni-channel world. Edwards talks about the frustrations he experienced conducting a search for a Chief Marketing Officer for eBags, most notably, his inability to find candidates with the right balance of skills and experience to lead growth for modern retailers.

The biggest obstacle, Edwards says, is that traditional CMOs tend to struggle with the speed of change in today’s retail industry – where business can change substantially within an hour’s time. Edwards’ solution was to split the traditional CMO role into two roles, each reporting to the CEO: one focused on traditional marketing, and the other focused on content and brand management.

Likewise, the CIO role struggles with many of the aforementioned issues, namely, an inability to partner effectively with the Chief Digital Officer or Chief Marketing Officer to drive innovation within an enterprise, as well as too much emphasis on backend systems and not enough focus on the customer experience. Edwards points out that at eBags, IT priorities are driven by customer trends, and the future of the CIO role, like the CMO, will have a greater emphasis on digital, likely being reimagined as the Chief Digital Information Officer (CDIO).

It’s Just Semantics. Or Is It?

Is it merely a matter of semantics? Possibly, but the underlying transformation goes much deeper. You could certainly label a modern, transformational marketing professional – one with a strong grasp of customer experience and advocacy and a deep understanding of the omni-channel world – as a CMO and not suffer any ill effects. It’s just a title, after all.

Chief Marketing Officer RedefinedBut that’s not the point. The point is that the marketing needs of today’s enterprises have transformed dramatically and continue to undergo rapid change. It’s about relevance today and the ability to stay relevant by keeping pace with the speed of change in the industry.

What today’s enterprises really need, then, are visionaries: marketing professionals with up-to-date skillsets, a growth mindset, and an ability to identify trends, inspire organizational change, and envision the way the company will engage and interact with consumers in the future. To put it simply, they’re innovators. It’s these professionals who have staying power in the modern enterprise, as they have the capacity to grow with and adapt to changing marketing technologies, tactics, and consumer trends. These are the marketing leaders who aren’t discarded after two years when the company recognizes the need for change; instead, they’re spearheading it.

What About Those Skillsets?

Of course, today’s CMOs (or Chief Digital Officers, Chief Experience Officers, Chief Customer Officers, or whatever nomenclature a company opts to utilize) come from myriad backgrounds with varying skillsets. There is no one-size-fits-all CMO. One may have a deep understanding of the target audience in a specific industry vertical, while another may have a strong mastery of data analysis and the ability to adapt to emerging marketing technologies with ease.

Experience still matters, but what matters more is a marketing professional’s relevance to the brand and how well their skills and expertise fit the needs of the enterprise. Above all, CMOs and other C-suite marketers must be adaptable – willing and ready to ride the inevitable waves of change.

The truth is that today’s C-suite marketing execs can’t possibly be masters of every marketing skill; the marketing landscape is simply too vast and varied, relying on a multitude of technologies, leveraging a wide swath of tactics, and reaching consumers across channels in the omni-channel world (while, of course, ensuring that the customer experience is consistent and above-the-bar at every touchpoint). CMOs must be visionaries

That’s why modern CMOs, CDOs, and the like must be strong leaders with acute self-awareness, giving them the ability to identify skills gaps within their team and hire the right marketing minds to fill those gaps and create a cohesive, all-encompassing team of marketing rockstars who are exponentially more powerful together than they are alone.

In this way, the modern CMO is more similar to the CEO, taking the over-arching leadership role that drives innovation and ensures that all the moving parts, skillsets, and talents are in line with broader company goals and objectives while also working together like a well-oiled machine.

If you want to think about it as a matter of semantics, the CMO is most certainly on its way out, giving way to the new-fangled C-suite title du jour, whether it’s Chief Digital Officer, Chief Customer Officer, Chief Innovation Officer, Chief Commerce Officer, Chief Experience Officer, Chief Strategy Officer, or another flavor of the week. There are no hard and fast rules; brands are free to define whatever roles as they see fit.

At its core, however, the need for a marketing leader in the C-suite is more crucial than ever, and these executives are serving in more powerful roles with a greater prominence and relevance throughout the organization, as well as increasing overlap with other business units and executives (the ever-growing need for a strong relationship between the CMO and CIO is well-documented, for instance). In a time in which breaking down silos is a top priority, CMOs are often just the leader today’s enterprises need to drive innovation and lead the charge.