From CMO to CEO: Anametrix’s Pelin Thorogood

The number of marketers who have made it to CEO is still in the low percentages, but with the right mix of data-driven marketing and customer focus any CMO can reach the top job

The average tenure of a CMO has risen dramatically in recent years, leaping from just 23 months in 2006 to 43 months in 2011, according to Spencer Stuart’s 2011 CMO report. Although CMOs still don’t last as long in their positions as their C-level counterparts, the increase is seen by many to signify a CMO’s legitimacy to ultimately taking the top job: CEO.

Yet examples of CMOs who’ve made the transition are still in the low percentages. The stumbling block is being able to understand and translate marketing’s value into a language the rest of the board appreciates. According to a Forbes survey of CEOs undertaken in mid-2011, 73 per cent of business leaders still think marketers lack business credibility and are not the business growth generators they should be because they fail to provide sufficient proof of the brand’s values through key metrics like sales, revenue, EBIT or market valuation.

Marketing metrics and proving economic impact is no such problem for Anametrix’s one-time CMO and new CEO Pelin Thorogood, who was promoted to the top job in January. The digital analytics company was founded three years ago to provide marketers with a way of gauging return on marketing investment – something Thorogood herself is an expert in.

“I’m a believer that a data-driven marketer can become a really good CEO – perhaps even the best CEO of most companies, not just companies like ours,” she told CMO.

A love of analytics

Thorogood’s love of analytics goes back to her university days, where she secured a master’s degree in engineering in operations research. She likened it to a cross between “advanced mathematics and computer science”.

“We were more focused on the manufacturing sector, as that was the key area then, but analytics is applicable in any industry,” she claimed. “It’s about understanding data and being able to use modelling to make sense of it.”

Thorogood followed up with an MBA in entrepreneurship. “I wanted to get all the skills I needed to build a business – everything from having a basic understanding of accounting and finance, to being able to relate to that side of the business.”

After switching from engineering to product management, Thorogood stepped into product marketing, a move she puts down to her desire to better understand customers. “Technology in itself is interesting but what engineers do is solve problems,” she explained. “I moved into product management then marketing because I wanted to understand the purpose of the product and those specific problems we were solving.

“I realised I really enjoyed the conversations with customers and diving deeper into understanding the audience.”

The one thing that held Thorogood back from taking a pure marketing role was the lack of data analytics employed. What eventually changed her mind was the opportunity to run the marketing department at start-up company WebSideStory. She joined in 2004 when the company went public and said in many ways it was her dream job. WebSideStory was acquired by Omniture in 2008 for US$394m, which was in turn bought by Adobe Systems in 2009 for US$1.8bn.

WebSideStory allowed Thorogood to implement data-driven marketing best practices that showed the CEO how many dollars were being spent in which channel, how many leads were generated, what the cost of the lead was and how much revenue those generated.

“We were focused on marketing analytics products to make marketers more data-driven, and enable them to analyse the emerging world of online to see how they could more effectively engage the buyers,” Thorogood recalled.

“It was a beautiful world of leveraging creativity then testing that creativity to see if it worked. My motto became ‘creativity without conversion equals zero’. You’ve got to be creative, but if that creativity didn’t drive revenue or convert people, then it didn’t fulfil its job. Of course you can’t just be data-driven without creativity either, because that’s where everything starts.”

WebSideStory’s founder and first CEO, Blaise Barrelet, is also the co-founder and first CEO of Anametrix, and recruited Thorogood to the team initially as CMO last year. She attributes her promotion to CEO to recognition of marketing’s position in the company’s DNA.

However, Thorogood is adamant any CMO can be a successful CEO, whatever the sector. “Somebody who truly understands the end user, and has empathy for their needs, will make a more effective CEO and the company a more client-focused, agile one,” she said.

“As a business, your raison d’etre is to service your clients and if you understand their pain and have empathy for them, you’re going to be a more successful company. A marketer in many ways understands the journey from prospect to customer and the transition those customers go through, because we’re all about understanding our audience and the different segments involved.

“In my case, the fact that our target buyer is a marketer makes me an even better suited person; in many ways, we are targeting me.”

How to be a CEO

The key to being a CEO, whether you’re working for a private or public company, is recognising you are accountable to the shareholders, and that you have to make a company successful.

“You need to know what you’ve done, how that translates into revenue, profitability, market share and a lot of metrics that indicate success,” Thorogood said. “Unless you are actually thinking in those terms to begin with, in whatever job you’ve had, it’s difficult.

“I see a lot of CFOs become CEOs because they understand metrics. Unfortunately, many of them don’t understand the business. They know the numbers and that’s why they can switch from an automotive company to a retailer and then a food chain, and do a good job in all because it’s about accounting. They understand accountability and metrics and can easily transition into the role of being the person being accountable to shareholders.

“A good CEO needs to also understand their buyers as well as be accountable to the shareholders they are servicing. You need to work with two masters – the people who make you successful [buyers], and the people who helped you get there to begin with [shareholders/investors]. Successful CEOs can service both masters because they understand them and balance their accountability to both.”

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