CMO editorial: 4 lessons from the 4th annual CMO50 list

CMO's editor looks at what this year's list of Australia's most innovative and effective marketing leaders says about the role of marketing in organisations today

Four years ago, CMO launched the first CMO50 list of Australia’s most innovative and effective marketers.

The intention was to highlight and celebrate the stellar work marketing chiefs – and by extension, their whole marketing functions – are doing, work that’s increasingly seeing the profession elevated in the c-suite and within organisations today.

This year, as we celebrated the 4th edition, I’m delighted to report the CMO50 list is now recognised as a mark of marketing leadership excellence. At a personal and professional level, it’s been a truly rewarding experience to be able to deliver such a constructive and credible platform that celebrates marketers as business builders and professionals.

And like most of the work we’ve been doing at CMO since we launched five years ago, we’ve been witnessing an incredible evolution story during that time.

During our celebrations in May to mark the 5-year anniversary of the CMO brand in Australia, I made the point modern marketing goes well beyond the advertising and communications remit all too many marketers – and companies – had been limiting themselves to.

There’s the need for digital, technological and data prowess, for one. Orchestrating wider customer experience (CX) management from awareness and acquisition through to support and advocacy, is another. Building employee engagement and company purpose is a third.

In other words, marketing has become much more than the traditional 4Ps of marketing. Exciting change is afoot, and a real opportunity exists to make a difference.

Yet all of this also means modern marketing leadership is a moving feast and as a result, can suffer from a lack of defined position, purpose and respect. In fact, if our CMO50 this year proves anything, it’s that being a CMO isn’t a clear cut role and that makes it a hard one to stick in.

Here are just a few of my other takeaways from this year’s 50 most innovative and effective CMOs.

1. Marketing keeps evading clear definition

A big caveat – and a contradictory one in that it’s contributing to both shortening CMO tenure and elevation - is definition. As marketing pervades every aspect of company operations and growth, it’s rather difficult to know how to classify what marketing has become.

Certainly, several recent high-profile CMO departures we’ve seen across ASX-listed organisations this year (I’m looking at Telstra here) indicate a lack of insight into what a strategically placed, empowered CMO can do.

When we put this question to our CMO50 this year, what became obvious was the modern-age definition of marketing is still being formed. There’s still a lot of confusion about what marketers can – and should – do, and ambiguity around and in the role.

There’s a marketer and a marketing strategy for every phase of a company’s lifecycle of course. But right now, with so much change and transformation required across pretty much all manner of businesses, marketing in itself has become a work in progress.  

2. Marketers must work harder to get the CEO onside

In the face of this confusion, CMOs should be doing more to educate CEOs around the role marketing can play in delivering both long and short-term growth objectives.

Yes, the ongoing disconnect between many CEOs and CMOs reflects the shape-shifting of the CMO. It’s equally the case there are still too many marketers who aren’t talking the language of the CEO and board. A third spoke in this cumbersome wheel is the rise of CX as a business imperative.

Lenovo’s former CMO for Asia-Pacific and now global head of digital Web and social, Nick Reynolds, put this best (and take heed, he's #5 on the 2018 CMO50 list). He touched on his increased role owning customer experience touchpoints that sit well outside the four walls of the marketing function.  

“A CEO sees marketing owning brand – and CX is the brand. But marketers don’t often own all the touchpoints and interactions. Yet they’re being asked to take ownership for CX. This is a huge source of frustration with CEOs,” Reynolds said.

“Just look at what is being expected of the marketing function: We’re being asked to oversee that whole CX journey. We’re expected to hold P&Ls, whereas previously that was the domain of sales. And there’s an expectation we be across 10,000+ martech offerings that will allow us to manage CX and optimise spend and ROI across multiple channels.”

For Reynolds, one way of avoiding potential disconnect with the CEO in the face of all this is to push back. “If you just take CX on and don’t say this is what I need, this is how we’ll manage and set expectations, then there’s an invisible gun being put to your head.”

It’s also vital marketers adopt the language of the business. This year’s #3, The A2 Milk Company’s global marketing chief, Susan Massasso, had completely adjusted her approach to board and executive presentations and meetings, cutting out marketing and brand speak and talking the commercial and cultural language of leadership.

She’s not the only one. This year’s #1, Tourism Australia CMO, Lisa Ronson, also adopted the language of the board in order to gain funding and approval for the group’s largest-ever US campaign, Dundee. You can read more about how she achieved that here.

Having the CEO’s ear and respect was clearly on display across this year’s CMO50. For example, 78 per cent are reporting directly to the CEO, a proximity allowing for much more impact and clout.

Importantly, it’s giving them the levers of control to make the changes necessary to achieve sustainable growth and change.

3. CMOs are agents of change and collaboration

Because what’s also clear is just how much marketing leaders must be the champions of change in their organisations. In turn, that requires significant commitment to collaboration.

Every one of our CMO50 is a case study in transformation and change, from the marketing function itself and through to every aspect of business. And they’re adopting a raft of tools and approaches, from agile to human-centred design, innovation and more, to achieve it. Key themes, meanwhile, included customer-led initiatives, an emphasis on brand purpose and vision, fostering new ways of working to drive adaptability and collaboration, and a strong focus on demonstrable impact.

Why? Because effective marketing can’t be done in isolation. It’s a job in persuasion, collaboration and influence. Sure, building solid foundations around the marketing function are absolutely vital for getting what you want done. But we’re living in a connected age, and with it comes a new era of connected, purposeful, cross-functional marketing.

Of course it’s not always easy to make change happen. It requires a fine balance of skills, not least of which are resiliency, leadership and bravery. It requires marketers to market themselves and their profession. It requires them to harness the trappings of business and commercial acumen, and foster new ways of working.

This is something I’m happy to say is evident right across this year’s CMO50.

4. Short tenure is hurting the marketing leader’s cause

A final point I’d touch on is possibly the most significant to come out of this year’s CMO50 that. And that’s tenure.

What became very apparent as we judged this year’s CMO50 was the implications of tenure and longevity in order to not only build buy-in and trust, but to achieve the big results. This year’s CMO50 boast not only longer tenure on average than industry norm, but also showcase significant tenure within the organisations they work for.

Across the list, average tenure is 3 years 7 months, which is higher than the average of 2 years, 10 months we saw in this year’s State of the CMO research in May. It’s actually much longer if you look at the tenure within organisation – that’s sitting at 5 years 4 months across our CMO for 2018.

What you can see from the CMO50 this year is a number of individuals who’ve moved up our CMO50 list into our top 10. It’s recognition of the perseverance, hard work, executive support they’ve gained and the courageous, sustained initiatives they’ve built.

In 2018, our judges have rewarded those marketing leaders who not only prepared and cooked the meal, and then sat down with their executive and functional peers to eat it, but who’ve also stuck around long enough for the critics’ reviews.

So what else does this say about how modern CMOs perform their roles today?

There are other factors in play here. For example, 78 per cent are reporting directly to the CEO, a proximity allowing for much more impact and clout. Importantly, it’s giving them the levers of control to make the changes necessary to achieve sustainable growth and change.

As one CMO50 listee put it, this tenure and executive mantle not only builds your collective company muscle memory, it also fosters trust and relationships that can assist you to make what an increasing number of CMOs are calling the “big, bold bets” required to gain customer cut-through today.  

A final note

That leads me to a final point. Our judges were impressed with just how much every one of the CMO50 demonstrated true strategic leadership and thinking and were pushing boundaries. Across the board, there was also less of the what and more of the why than previous years, a reflection of the maturity of thinking in our top marketing leaders today.

If there’s one ultimate lesson I’ve taken away from reading all the incredible submissions we received this year, it’s that there are some brave people in our marketing leadership midst today.

For the full list of CMO50 for 2018, along with extended profiles of all of this year’s incredible marketing champions, visit our dedicated CMO50 portal here.

And if you'd like to view this year's CMO special print edition featuring the CMO50 here, you can download that here.

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




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