CMO interview: What it takes to align with your CEO

Global chief marketing officer at IT services giant, HCL, talks about the challenges of aligning marketing with the CEO's growth ambitions plus how to build commercial acumen

Matt Preschern
Matt Preschern


If you want to be a successful marketer in today’s world, you have to be part of the growth engine your CEO is driving.  

That’s the view of HCL’s global CMO, Matt Preschern, who caught up with CMO during a recent visit to Sydney to talk about how he’s fostering a customer-led approach to marketing at the IT services giant, and importantly, one that delivers demonstrable value to the business commercially.

HCL is a $7.2 billion India-based IT services company specialising in offshore IT and software development, with more than 117,000 employees and operations in 31 countries. As CMO, Preschern overseas global business, strategic marketing, sales enablement and corporate communications and also has a key role across initiatives such as HCL’s customer advisory council.

Preschern has a strong B2B marketing background. Starting his career at UPS, he then spent 15 years at IBM, working his way up to VP of marketing for North America Business Consulting Services in charge of repositioning the organisation for growth. He then spent a year as senior VP and enterprise CMO at Windstream before joining HCL as its global marketing chief three years ago.  

While admitting it’s never been more challenging to be a marketer, Preschern has a firm belief that the glass “is more full than empty”. Why? Because today’s marketers are the custodians of creating, authentic experiences at every touchpoint that are 100 per cent aligned with the brand promise of the organisation.


“That doesn’t mean marketing controls every touchpoint, but there are too many companies who in my view make the mistake of thinking or treating marketing as the communications arm,” he says. “But what they try to communicate is not in sync with the experience someone has.

“In any business, you have to work out what being customer led means, then create a culture firstly, but secondly, in every touchpoint, some level of authentic experiences. That’s when people receive an invoice, come through to your call centre, or touch your Web page.”

What it takes to align with your CEO

Of course, being able to deliver on this promise is another matter entirely. Preschern believes too many CMOs still don’t position themselves as their organisation’s growth engine.

A recent Harvard Business Review article suggests a significant disconnect still exists between the CMO and CEO. According to the article’s authors, ongoing challenges around aligning marketing metrics to business financials for example, have left CMOs with the shortest tenure across all c-level executives and continue to plague their ability to earn a rightful place at the executive table.

Preschern identifies four key issues stopping CMOs from getting closer to their CEOs. The first: Too many marketers don’t understand that most CEOs have a direct obligation to their board to drive a growth agenda.

“If they don’t deliver profitable revenue growth, they will not be in that position for long. If you asked the top 20 CMOs if they personally feel that pain, I’m not sure the answer is yes,” he suggests. “But if you don’t, I’d strongly encourage you to think about that.”

The second thing CMOs must do is find out what their CEO is expecting the marketing function to deliver.

“Some CEOs, particularly in consumer brands, may say that they need their brand to be the most powerful brand in the world. In B2B, they often say it’s all about sales and sale enablement,” Preschern says. “As a CMO, you have to find that out and align yourself to it. Not every CEO is the same.”  

The third problem is more introspective. “We as marketing community have not done a very good job in articulating what our profession is actually all about,” Preschern claims.

“The term ‘marketing’ may actually be a problem in itself, and it is amazing for me have an opinion on what marketing is and what it should or should not be. I went back to one of my business books from the early 1990s and I think it’s helpful to go back sometimes and think about the business model, customer segments, how you make money what the value proposition is. We have not done as good a job of that as we should have.”

To overcome it, you need to become a ‘dual brain CMO’, Preschern says. “Today, more so than ever, you need to have the ability to understand and live comfortably with numbers. But on the other hand, marketing will always require a high level of creativity, abstract thinking. I’m not sure too many CMOs have both of those skills.

“Maybe more have historically come from an agency background and the creative side. Now, you may see a bunch who are heavy data centric but don’t have the other skill. Somewhere between all of that lies the dilemma we’re facing.”

The fourth problem CMOs have is one of perception. “I also think marketing is sometimes the easy target. If something goes wrong, like a bad article being written, it must be the marketing or PR team. If there’s a customer satisfaction issue, then probably marketing dropped the ball. Fairly or unfairly, it gets piled on,” Preschern says.  

“The irony is, if you think through what’s happening in this digital world and how we can start to use technology to getting closer to really personalising our interactions, and the analytics, there is so much here you can do. The glass is much more full than empty, but yes, it’s challenging.”

Finding the right metrics

So what does commercial acumen as a CMO look like? Preschern agrees it’s a matter of balancing functional metrics with financial outcomes.

“I know exactly what the revenue growth targets are, and our profit margin targets and we as a marketing team, are judged on contributing to that growth,” he says.  

But that doesn’t mean ignoring the vanity or marketing specific metrics. “If you take the marketing discipline seriously, you still need to track associated marketing metrics as diagnostics as to whether what you’re doing is leading to success or not,” Preschern says.

“If you believe in lead or demand generation, then you probably ought to know the serious decision matrixes and you better really look at it. If you’ve mapped that closely, you’ll have a good sense of if you’re creating quality pipeline or not. If you’re running a lot of events, you better know how many people are attending, profiles, and how to tie it back to your pipeline. If you’re doing search, you better understand those associated metrics.

“My challenge with the commercial debate is there is this notion of simplifying. But there’s a big difference between simplifying and making things simplistic. We’re not talking about making things simplistic.”

What marketers also need to get better at is identifying metrics to share outside of their function, and which to keep to themselves, Preschern says.

“Yes, if you don’t understand business metrics, chances are you’re going to be in trouble. But that doesn’t give you the licence not to know about the marketing stuff, attribution and so on,” he says.

“Two-thirds of the marketing metrics don’t need to be articulated to anyone outside of marketing. Those are the metrics we need to know but then articulate in a way so business leaders can understand.”

Building HCL’s modern marketing function

In his role at HCL, Preschern brings both a commercial and customer lens to his role as CMO. Rather ironically, however, it’s the company’s philosophy of being employee first, customer second that’s helping him achieve this.

As a case in point, Preschern has replaced a “bifurcated” structure consisting of a centrally located corporate marketing team and disjoined field marketing operations globally, with a ‘one marketing’ structure based around competencies including brand, demand generation, content marketing, analytics, and global PR and corporate communications.

“These competencies act like a pitcher and catcher in baseball. If the corporate team is the pitcher and creates all the great content, but there’s no catcher, you can throw as many balls as you want and they don’t have a hit rate,” he explains.

“Our geographic teams have started to realise that if you want to be successful in marketing today, there is a certain level of specialisation required and it’s in their interest to take advantage of the brand or digital competency. I can promise you there is too much going on in marketing – you won’t have the knowledge of it all. Connecting and working together is vital.”

Implementing this model requires you to lead from the front while empowering staff to make decisions, Preschern says.

“In order to do that, as a leader you have to bring some level of a culture of experimentation, where people feel comfortable enough to make a mistake. And when they do, you can move on quickly,” he says. “That is as important as anything else you can do structurally or functionally.”

This extends all the way to the hiring process. “I spend a good portion of my time talking about the soft skills – being comfortable with ambiguity, working with a team where you may be three or four in a box and you have different skillsets and you need to find a common ground,” Preschern says.

And marketing wins when the team wins, he adds.

Technology and digital investment are also helping HCL’s marketers become a more streamlined and efficient force. The group has significantly enhanced and deployed fresh marketing technology in recent years, including Oracle Eloqua to Google Analytics and Kapost, and upped investment into digital marketing activities. But Preschern is quick to point out there’s a distinction between digital channels, and marketing in a digital world.

“One of the things wrong with digital marketing is it underestimates the importance of non-digital touchpoints, like a face-to-face meeting or attending an event, or having an experience at an airport. But you have to get the digital lens right,” he says.  

Follow CMO on Twitter: @CMOAustralia, take part in the CMO conversation on LinkedIn: CMO ANZ, join us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CMOAustralia, or check us out on Google+:google.com/+CmoAu     

 

 

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