What the new breed of CMOs know that you don’t

Respected author and marketer, MaryLee Sachs, presents excerpts and thoughts from her new book on what the chief marketing officer role looks like in organisations today

MaryLee Sachs
MaryLee Sachs

Certainly, the CMO job specs vary widely between organisations and the maturity of a given organisation’s marketing function. So what makes a good CMO? In today’s world—where marketing and technology are converging and where the customer reigns supreme—the CMO is becoming more important than ever.

What the New Breed of CMOs Know That You Don’t started as a research project to determine how CMOs are up-levelling their roles. It is a follow-up to my first book, The Changing MO of the CMO: How the Convergence of Brand and Reputation Is Affecting Marketers. Twenty-six CMOs, who were appointed to newly created roles or roles that had been heightened in importance, were interviewed for the book, representing a wide range of CMOs across the spectrum of B2C, B2B and some that spanned both.

Job specifications differ widely, much more than for the CEO or CFO. And the responsibilities of the interviewees varied depending on the organisation, but they had two things in common: The ear and support of their CEO, and a passion for using marketing to create a change agenda in their organisations.

As Guy Longworth, senior vice-president of PlayStation Brand Marketing for Sony Computer Entertainment Americas, says, “Having been a CMO in four different organisations, I have seen at first hand the dramatic changes in the role of the CMO over the last 15 years. The role continues to evolve and increase in importance.”

As we prepare for another year of doubtless change, CMOs may be well advised to take a step back and think about their agenda within their own organisations. Are we truly leveraging our creative and analytic abilities given the growing complexity of the business environment? Can we really deliver against the leap in customer centricity and consumer power?

The rapid pace of change is creating the need for a new breed of superhero CMOs who are able to demonstrate strength in communication and collaboration, fully understand both the business and the customer, and be agile and flexible yet decisive. And above all else, today’s senior marketer needs to demonstrate curiosity and an eagerness to continue to learn. Julie Woods-Moss, CMO of US$4 billion technology company, Tata Communications, calls this “intellectual curiosity”.

According to Woods-Moss, “Intellectual curiosity is about always being the one in the room saying: Why, what about this? I think it’s a combination of intellectual curiosity and intellectual honesty.”

Call it what you like—intellectual curiosity, learning agility, staying ahead of the curve —it all adds up to keeping an open mind and continuing to innovate whenever and wherever you are able to create positive change.

When Woods-Moss was asked by the board to build a ‘global marketing function that included the corporate communications right through’, she was conscious that she inherited a group of highly optimised, local teams that were unaccustomed to working in a collaborative way. Instead of saying, “Okay, guys, we’re going to do a top-down plan,” she said, “Everybody, continue to build your own plans. But then we’re going to have a donor and a recipient. And I’ll be looking for those who steal the most from other people’s plans and those who donate the most to be stolen.”

Woods-Moss rewarded her team members with a 20-per cent bonus for achieving that dynamic, which meant that instead of forcing globalisation, she was able to build a plan from the bottom up with incentives. In that way, she was able to celebrate the champions who gave the most, as well as those who were humble enough to actually share and re-use the most.


On the subject of innovation and idea generation, Douwe Bergsma, CMO of privately held FMCG company, Georgia-Pacific, also spoke about innovation at the launch of the book at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. When Bergsma arrived at Georgia-Pacific, the definition of innovation and the application of innovation were predominantly product innovation. They were, in many respects, synonymous. But Bergsma was keen to take innovation beyond product.

“It’s innovation of processes, innovation of marketing [and] innovation of packaging our graphics, our channels [and] the way we go to market,” he said.

“One of the largest innovation efforts we’ve made is moving into ecommerce, which has become relatively big for us in a relatively short time. But that’s guided the innovation… Our question is, how are you innovating our media buy? How are you innovating our line measurements? So we’re actually innovating across the board,” he continued.

Bergsma focuses on creating what he calls “restless discontent” in order to achieve innovation. “First, you need to have some discontent with the current situation. Second, you need to have a vision of a better state. And a third is to believe that there’s a reasonable path to get there,” he explained.

Setting lofty goals to be achieved by innovation in practice seems to be a common thread across change-making CMOs. And the CMO challenge goes way beyond the marketing function. Given the ambiguities of the role, a CMO often has the toughest job of educating both the internal community as well as the external world about marketing and its primary role in building business: Contributing to the growth of the organisation. And in order to do so, the CMO has to have one foot in the business leadership area as a true c-suite player and the other foot in the marketing leadership area. This presents a set of dual challenges to embrace both.

All of the CMOs interviewed for the book demonstrated these characteristics. Several brought experience in operational roles to their marketing positions, bringing a new level of business acumen and fluency to the practice of marketing in their organisations.

Other common strengths included the strong desire to collaborate across the enterprise, fearlessness to experiment and learn from both successes and failures, dedication to soliciting creativity and innovation from all employees, not just those in the marketing department, and a passion for recruiting, developing and retaining the best talent.

Interestingly, these CMOs are remarkably aligned on the importance of culture in the organisation and the role they can play in helping to shape a positive and productive mindset. But the CMO role is increasingly not for the faint of heart as it continues to morph. The world is changing, and what they’re facing is changing; nothing remains constant.

Changing job descriptions

Job descriptions for a CMO role vary extremely widely. There are the traditional delineations —B2C and B2B roles, for example, can be very different. Industry sector and size of business also impact on the type of CMO role an organisation adopts. Company history and culture, the CEO’s mindset and c-suite support also factor into the make-up of a CMO. Personalities and interests of the CMO, as well, impact how the CMO approaches the task at hand.

Maryam Banikarim, SVP and CMO of Gannett Corp, talks about the CMOs who are members of the Marketing 50, a private community for senior-most marketers from globally respected organisations: “All those CMOs have very, very different jobs from each other. No two CMO jobs are alike. And it’s increasingly a title that people just give out. It can just mean so many different things. And it’s a different job at different companies.”

According to Rob Malcolm, the CMO is “both the best of jobs and the worst of jobs at the same time”. Ultimately, the senior-most marketer of an organisation is responsible for facilitating growth, sales and marketing strategy. He or she must work toward objectives such as revenue generation, cost reduction and/or risk mitigation. CMOs are faced with a diverse and growing range of disciplines in which they are required to be knowledgeable. And beyond the challenges of leading their own team, the CMO is invariably reliant upon resources beyond their direct control.

Consequently, more than any other senior executive, the CMO must influence peers in order to achieve their own goals. Clearly, this necessity to lead peers compounds the complexity of challenges faced by the CMO.

The somewhat unpredictable impact of marketing efforts coupled with the need to drive profits often leads to a short tenure for many CMOs. Global executive search firm Spencer Stuart researches and publishes an annual report on CMO tenure. The good news is that the most recent study shows an all-time high of 43 months average, or roughly 3.5 years. However, that’s woefully lower than the average tenure of a CEO or even a CFO.

So what’s behind the increase? According to Tom Seclow, who leads the North American Marketing Officer Practice for Spencer Stuart, the CMO is enjoying somewhat of an evolution. “CMOs are getting a lot of things right and gaining credibility among other C-suite members, including CEOs. They’ve always been in the position of being the advocate for the customer in the organisation.

“Now, largely because of the Internet and their [CMOs’] ability to leverage data and information, they can bring that into the organisation in a quantifiable and meaningful way. Their ability to quantifiably describe not just who, but why and how customers are buying products and services is core to the business.”

According to Seclow, there’s a new breed of CMOs. They have the technical qualities, of course, but the CMO mandate now is so much broader. While they must have some technical understanding of all of the areas of marketing, they have specialists underneath them to execute programs, so the CMOs themselves have to be really good at leading the team and providing strategic direction, and they need to build credibility from their s-suite peers, particularly their CEO.

In the past, it used to be that the CMO was the keeper of the brand and the creative guru, much more intuitive and not necessarily the type of person to be put in front of an industry analyst or financial analyst. Things have changed.

This article originally appeared in the CMO Council’s Peersphere magazine, Volume 3, Number 2, 2014.

About the author MaryLee Sachs is an independent marketing consultant who has written two books on CMOs: The Changing MO of the CMO: How the Convergence of Brand and Reputation Has Affected Marketers, launched at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity in 2011; and What the New Breed of CMOs Know That You Don’t, which was launched at Cannes in 2013. She established her consultancy, Changing MO, LLC, in 2012 based on the tenets of her first book. As a former global head of consumer marketing at a major WPP firm, she has spent the last seven years focused on the CMO community and has contributed to both the CMO Club and the Marketing 50 as an advising member. Sachs has more than 25 years of integrated marketing experience in the international arena, working with and advising many bluechip brands.

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