CMO interview: Avaya marketer dishes ‘harsh truths’ about role and authority of marketing

CMOs still struggle to get a seat at the executive table, are missing digital opportunities and need to get more holistic customer experience under their belt

While the role of marketing is becoming increasingly critical to organisations’ core operations, many marketing leaders are still battling for a seat at the table, according to Avaya head of marketing, Michelle Sheehan.

“This proves detrimental as it removes a customer-facing layer from the organisation, particularly in an era where brand engagement goes well beyond the storefront, website, and contact centre,” she tells CMO.  

Getting and retaining that executive seat is one of several “harsh truths” about marketing in today’s economy, particularly around the role and authority of marketers in key operational decisions, Sheehan believes.

Sheehan has seen her fair share of changes in her 20 years across various roles and disciplines including product management, internal and external communications as well as PR.

CMO caught up with Sheehan, who offered up some insights on key challenges, how the industry can do better, and some tips for young players.

Seat at the table

Sheehan’s big concern is around the lack of CMO representation at the executive table.

“It has been harder for marketing to have a seat at the table over the last number of years - and that’s not necessarily the fault of the marketer,” she claims. “The role of marketing has changed and we have to be across so many more things than we did in the past.”

It’s not just more channels to be across, it’s being able to articulate value, she says. “What we’re doing in marketing now is not just driving one action to get one sale, we’re trying to make sure we have a 24/7 always-on brand that can respond 24/7,” she says.

Everything in marketing today needs to be linked back to a dollar value, which means “our voice at the table will be more understood and people can related to it more”, Sheehan says.

But marketers need to ensure they have the commercial acumen suitable to holding such a seat. This is something some senior marketers lack, Sheehan says, which consequently devalues the role of marketing within the organisation.

“The more you can share at the table, the better,” she says, adding marketers have just as important a role as their executive peers.

“There’s no one person that deserves a seat over anyone else at the boardroom table. Gone are the days where one executive had more power than another. I see the executive team is now a link, it is like a chain, and one person that’s not as powerful as the next will actually bring the whole team down.

“Utilise your colleagues to help them have a voice, the same way I help sales have a voice. I also rely on them to help me have a voice.”

Today’s CMO role literally touching every part of the business, Sheehan continues, explaining today’s marketers need to know what’s going on right across the company from the human resources department to services to the contact centre, right up to the managing director’s office.

“We’ve got to know what deals we’re working on, understand all areas of the business, so we can leverage and improve. Therefore, the whole experience for the customer, or the prospect, is maximised.”  

Digital transformation

An added challenge is digital transformation. Today’s marketers need to have an understanding of how technology works and how it can be leveraged to deliver value to their customers. This is especially critical as the role of the marketer becomes increasingly prominent in the customer experience strategy.

“We’ve got to now become like a CIO,” Sheehan claims. “We know about ads and we know about social media, but there's all of these tools now available as part of digital transformation for customer experience. We’ve got to put a technology hat on and understand all of these tools available.

“Marketers have to know if an application or a solution they are looking at is going to bolt easily into the organisation. Otherwise, IT may shy away and say, ‘I don’t want to do this. It is going to be difficult’. So we have to become like IT people as well.”

Sheehan admits that’s a big challenge. “We have so much to keep up to date with just on marketing and communications technology. You’ve gone from having seven different platforms around 15 years ago to now about 750 platforms available for us, just on the marketing side.”

In Australia, Sheehan saw an additional hurdle as many companies shrink the size of the marketing departments in favour of centralisation.

“Our teams are smaller, but we’re still expected to be a whole team. We’re still expected to think like five people and we don’t have those resources anymore,” she comments. “We have to be constantly learning, and we now have to learn about IT.” 

Customer experience

But there’s another challenge: The Consumer. Today’s customers are largely digitally-native and expect to interact on their own terms.

“Our biggest challenge now as a marketer is that loyalty is not as strong anymore,” Sheehan says.  

Again, however, many marketers don’t have the required IT background to meet these expectations, and fail to capitalise on the digital opportunity. Social media alone after all, doesn’t cut it.

“As a marketer, you’ve got to know what someone’s going to do, before they are going to do it. And the only way you can do that is have a really good holistic and accurate view of a customer,” Sheehan says. “The best way to do that is through analytics.  

“You’ve got to find through your analytics and your marketing technology, and your customer experience technology, to gather all of the data that you can work out what they’re going to do in advance. And then you’ve got to stop the opportunity for them to very quickly leave you.”

3 top tips

For marketers looking to reach a leadership role in marketing, Sheehan has a few tips.

In order to ‘find a voice’ in marketing, for example, she advises marketers to align, drive and analyse.

“You need to align yourself with the managing director so you ensure that anything you are doing is aligned with the local strategy,” Sheehan says. “Align yourself with the sales director to make sure sales understand what you’re doing, the outcomes and how it’s going to be beneficial to them and other stakeholders.”

Drive includes always taking people on the journey. “You can’t do things in isolation anymore. You need to take the organisation on that journey,” Sheehan says.

“As soon as I start planning an event, or a campaign, I’m bringing in key people. Bringing in sales people and giving an overview to the managing director. I will even get someone from finance. Then people will feel part of anything that you take to market.”

On the analysis front, look at all the relevant data and how you can turn that data into information.

“Take the data to improve and expand and enhance. That then becomes information and that data could help other divisions as well,” she concludes.  

Follow CMO on Twitter: @CMOAustralia, take part in the CMO conversation on LinkedIn: CMO ANZ, join us on Facebook:, or check us out on   


Join the newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.
Show Comments

Blog Posts

How can a brand remain human in a digital world?

Some commentators estimate that by 2020, 85 per cent of buyer-seller interactions will happen online through social media and video*. That’s only two years away, and pertinent for any marketer.

James Kyd

Global head of brand strategy and marketing, Xero

​Relevance and substance are the keys to marketing’s future

Marketing’s evolution and increased value-add to organisations is making headway in one essential direction: Driving brands to achieve maximum relevance in the heart and minds of customers.

Jean-Luc Ambrosi

Author, marketer

Why doing your job well is the key to innovation

The words ‘power company’ and ‘innovation’ probably don’t seem like a natural combination. In fact, when I first went for a marketing role with an electricity company, I semi-dreaded the work I thought I’d be doing.

Catherine Anderson

Head of marketing, Powershop Australia

Lok knocks it out the park and predicts the future...“People are starting to understand they own their own data, and this will come to a ...


Data regulation key to marketing innovation

Read more

It needs to come from the top. It's not just about buy-in from the leadership team, leadership should be part of the development process ...

Stephen Houraghan

Why getting intimate is key to creating a great customer experience and optimising customer value

Read more

When was this article posted?


Report Reveals the Channels That Really Influence Consumer Purchase Decisions

Read more

sorry, I did not see that my first attempt already posted.


5 ways Australian Unity is driving innovation

Read more

Examples of their "innovation": have had problems with them in their "innova...


5 ways Australian Unity is driving innovation

Read more

Latest Podcast

More podcasts

Sign in