How to Survive the Thankless CMO Job

Rob Enderle

Some companies seem to go through chief marketing officers (CMOs) like Tiger Woods goes through girlfriends. I've often thought that the first thing a new CMO should do is begin looking for the next job because, chances are, this one won't last long. Marketing not only is a staff job, but often one that requires little expertise. Everyone seems to think they could do it better.


CMOs often are not well matched to the duties they have because these duties vary by company and company structure. Few CEOs are knowledgeable about marketing. So you have a job whose duties and responsibilities aren't clear, managed by someone that likely doesn't understand marketing, with metrics that are hard to define and surrounded by people who seem to think they know more about marketing than the CMO does.


Definition of Marketing

Not that you really need this to do the CMO job, but I think it is good to remind people what marketing is before starting a discussion on being a successful CMO. Pulling from comments by Harvard Business School's emeritus professor of marketing Theodore C. Levitt, "Marketing is concerned with the tightly integrated effort to discover, create, arouse, and satisfy customer needs." It is not just advertising and it isn't sales.


As a practice it should, but often does not, consist of four elements:

  • identification, selection, and development of a product,
  • determination of its price,
  • selection of a distribution channel to reach the customer, and
  • development and implementation of a promotional strategy.


I know of only one technology company that executes marketing well and that is Apple. Coincidently, it is leading its segment and its CEO was selected as CEO of the decade by Fortune magazine. This suggests there are good reasons to do this right.


It is also handy to keep this definition in mind so you can put the next propeller head who thinks he or she knows more about marketing than you do can be put in his or her place. Not that this has EVER happened to me.


What follows are the rules to follow when initially getting the job to assure you have enough time to figure out how to survive it.

Rule No. 1: Learn from the Last CMO's Mistakes and Successes

I was tempted to suggest you might want to sacrifice a chicken on the first day of the job. Instead, find out as much as you can about why the person you are replacing didn't make it. Chances are that person was forced out, even if people initially tell you otherwise. And even if that person died on the job, you might want to check into that as well.


You might even call your predecessor and get them to talk to you. (It wasn't as if you did the firing, after all.) Ego is a dangerous thing in the CMO job. You do need to have a thick skin and be able to argue strongly for what you want to do, but using ego as an excuse not to learn from your predecessor would be a big mistake.


Don't feel you have to fix everything, either. Textbook mistakes are getting involved in things that are not within your scope (like new headquarters buildings) or fixing things that aren't broken (like replacing the corporate logo). Keep to your knitting initially and try to avoid things that are textbook stupid (messing with strong logos, high-concept TV advertising, Super Bowl, racing, celebrity spokespeople, etc.).

Rule No. 2: Learn the Power Structure

I can't tell you the number of CMOs who didn't realize in time that they were subordinated to division managers and often the marketing directors who reported to them. It is easy to fall in love with an organizational chart that puts you next to the CEO, but often that job is actually rather junior. Knowing the initial limitations of authority lets you know which asses you initially have to kiss well and often to survive your first few months and who either will help you keep your job or help boot your sorry butt out of it.

Rule No. 3: Own Your Metrics

You probably know that marketing metrics suck. They are largely unreliable and it is likely vastly easier to count the whiskers on an angel than to know at any given time how well or poorly your team is doing. However, it is in your best interest to make sure these metrics reflect as accurately as possible your contribution to sales. If you don't own them, you can't assure this, and you'll likely find the metrics work against you. Also, resist the temptation to focus just on brand recognition. Granted, this is easy, but it's fuzzy and doesn't have a direct connection to sales. If you can show how your efforts are increasing the company's bottom line, your budget is relatively safe. If you can't, it isn't.


This is critical because often, even with successful campaigns, you can find budgets stripped from marketing because they weren't adequately protected by sales-oriented metrics.


Rule No. 4: Build a Qualified Team Loyal to You

As CMO, you are under siege. The last thing you need to worry about is one of your own people using your corpse as a stepping-stone to the next promotion. I've watched a lot of folks get shot down because their people did something either intentionally or accidentally that resulted in major problems for the company. Chances are your predecessor had this problem. One of the first things you have to do is make sure that any problem children in your new organization become someone else's problem children.


In building a loyal team, it also helps if they are or can be well connected in the company. Like it or not, your people are your eyes and ears and often will know of risks before you do. If their bread is buttered on the same side yours, chances are they will defend you. Chances are you also will need their defense.


Don't give up turf easily. I've watched a number of CMOs who found themselves redundant after easily agreeing to give up responsibilities. The job was defined partially by who reports to it. If you lose too much, the need to keep you in that job might drop significantly.


Rule No. 5: Find Out What the CEO Wants (And Avoid Making Him or Her Look Stupid)

CEOs often want to meet celebrities, see themselves on TV, give presentations to large audiences, and/or be seen as a hero at the company. They aren't too fond of being pilloried, looking bad on stage or being caught up in a celebrity scandal. This suggests that you find out what the CEO wants to do in terms of public image and then you make sure no problems come from that. It might be better to have events with celebrities but not use them as spokespeople, or make sure the CEO is always staged in a favorable light. You might even drive some training in presentation methods, if needed.


You can survive a lot of things if your CEO loves you and very little otherwise.

Rule No 6: Own your Agencies-Don't Let Them Own You

I've seen a lot of advertising and PR disasters over the years. Generally they have resulted from poor ownership over the process and one or more of these vendors behaving badly. The practice of bringing in an agency you know and love is a best practice, assuming the existing agency isn't closely tied to an executive or board member. There are so many PR and advertising agencies that try to maximize billable hours and take advantage of clients that it is worthwhile to make sure yours is focused on making you happy and successful. I'd also suggest fewer is better. Like your employees, you want the agency to have your needs and reputation as its top priority.


Wrapping Up: The CMO is a Job at Risk

I've often thought that CMO should stand for Chief Masochistic Officer in technology companies because the deck is stacked against the successful execution of this job. However, there are ways to lower the risks initially. Long term, it might be wise to fix the position and slowly aggregate responsibility and authority back into the job so that both match the org chart and the position is both more important and more defensible.


Often it seems that the longest-lasting CMOs are the ones that do the least, but focus sharply on their own job security. I don't think that is good for the companies they work for or the technology market in which many of us live,but it is the reality. Fixing that should be a higher priority because the job as it is isn't as fun or interesting as it could be.

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