Evolution of the CMO: Decade of Change – from Obscurity to C-Suite Engine

Nov17, 2015

In 2006, I took my first role as a CMO of a B2B software company. I can remember the reaction of my friends and peers like it was yesterday. A neighbor asked how I became a Chief Medical Officer (a different kind of CMO) so quickly, and I think the rest thought I had simply made up a title to make the job feel more important.

Truthfully, the CMO role was just emerging. At the time, marketing had not solidified a legitimate role in the C-Suite, and certainly was not a core strategic piece of most B2B companies. CMO roles were reserved for the largest consumer-facing brands. The biggest piece of the job was usually developing creative. Instead of Chief Marketing Officer, at that time it would have more aptly been named Chief Media Officer. Seems hard to believe but there were literally only five unique mediums we planned for: television, radio, print, out of home, and “other”. The approach centered on casting a large net for the masses.

Fast forward to today, the consumer is in control. Metrics drive everything marketers do—B2B CMOs focus much beyond lead generation and B2C CMOs don’t live and die by the score of their creative copy. Instead of being limited to the most notable brands on the Fortune 100 list, marketing is now essential to every thriving business. In addition, the core priorities of B2B and B2C CMO’s have converged. In an age of e-commerce, B2C CMO’s are often discussing a marketing funnel and their conversion rates, and B2B CMO’s are even more likely to be talking about branding, thought leadership and content vs. pure demand generation.

 Success as a CMO Today

The range of skills and tasks required of a CMO are dramatically different than even a few short years ago. The definition of a CMO’s role in Wikipedia feels spot on (but maybe somewhat akin to a superhuman):

  • Analytical tasks, such as pricing and market research,
  • Creative tasks such as designing advertising and promotions,
  • Interpersonal tasks such as coordinating many different styles of thinking in a single team

No one person—superhuman or not—can manage all the tasks thrown on the plate of today’s CMO. To name a few, some of these tasks include branding, messaging, positioning, pricing, analyst relations, creative development, website, demand generation, employee communications, analyst relations, and company culture. So… how does a CMO succeed in today’s environment?

 1.   Casting a Vision 

It’s been said that without vision, people perish. At the very least, in the world of marketing, your team will certainly suffer without a clear vision.  As a leader of any team, the greatest asset you can deliver is a core message that guides all of the functions of your team.  This enables your team to become more autonomous, and provides a filter for decision-making while creating clarity in the overall purpose. My team will tell you one of my favorite sayings is “start with the end in mind and work backwards”. This drives the alignment and unity necessary to achieve extraordinary outcomes. The combination of unity in vision and diversity is the combination that works magic.

 2.   Build the Best Team

Any success that is attributed to me as a marketer is really just a reflection of the exceptional team that I was privileged to recruit and work alongside. If a vision is the greatest asset you can deliver to your team, then people are the greatest asset to your marketing efforts, and ultimately your company. This was often my top priority. Investing time and energy to mentor and coach your marketing team has an incalculable rate of return, and really is the only way to scale your time and focus as CMO. Yes, it requires your availability and significant attention, but it builds authentic relationships with your team and shows them you are all in!

 3. Experimentation & Learning Agility

In a rapidly changing environment, CMOs constantly need to adapt and improve. Improvement starts with utilizing the analytical tools available to make data-driven decisions. It also requires adaptation because being too rigid on your premature notions can derail you. I think this is where the term ‘growth hacker’ has emerged. Succeeding in such a rapidly changing environment requires continuous experimentation to build a scalable and repeatable model. Successful CMOs seem to be ‘lucky’, but this is often a result of taking calculated risks based on continuous experimentation and an in-depth knowledge of customers and the market.

 4.   Strategy > Tactics

You cannot execute every possible marketing tactic well, and frankly, you shouldn’t try. Marketing strategy entails being able to let the data do the talking for you. Gaining better understanding of your customer, the competitive landscape, and the key differentiators of your business all significantly trump the specific marketing tactics your company deploys. It’s important to start with the ‘what’ vs ‘how’ to avoid the shiny object syndrome of chasing the newest social media channel vs your overall business strategy. Strategy is the filter that drives prioritization.

 5.   Alignment with Company Leadership

The biggest contributing factor to the success of a CMO is how aligned they are with the other leaders of the C-Suite. Having cross-functional clarity and communication is pivotal for the success of the organization. CMOs are the conductors of the symphony—bringing melody and harmony to the moving parts within the organization. CMOs work in close alignment with the Chief Technology Officer  (Product Launch & Messaging), Chief Sales Officer (Demand Gen & Customer Engagement), Chief Financial Officer (Attribution & Measurement), EVP, HR (Culture and Employee Engagement), and Chief Executive Officer (Communications & Strategy). In my view, the role of marketing is increasingly to amplify and leverage the company’s departments by blending all functions together effectively. Successful CMOs help orchestrate an organization that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Today’s CMO has an undisputed seat at the executive table. In addition, based on the fact the characteristics of the CMO role largely reflect those required of a CEO, this leads me to believe that many of the CMO’s of today are the CEO’s of tomorrow. Somehow, this once ostentatious and seemingly fabricated role has in many ways found its way to becoming the engine of the C-Suite.


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