CMO to CEO: Why it's a great time for marketers to lead business

Australian Institute of Management chief and former marketer, Ben Foote, details what it took to climb to the top job, and why he thinks there's never been a better time for marketers to lead companies

Ben Foote
Ben Foote

Marketing owning customer experience

The road to CEO isn’t just a given, however. For Foote, one issue is marketers get too focused on communications and campaigns, digital leads or PR and remained siloed from the rest of the business.

“They don’t pull back often enough and think about the customer and what the customer values. And how to differentiate to better align to customer needs,” he says. “Of course those questions need to be thought about and answered, but if you’re not thinking about these bigger questions, you won’t advance, and be someone thinking at the top and with senior team about what the business is all about.”  

Yet even those marketers in silos are still in an “amazing position” to think about those key pieces of customer experience excellence, from how the business engages them, to how the business can improve products and services and services customers, Foote says.

“My brutal view is marketers spending money on campaign-based activations, when the business is not extremely clear that the products and services it offers is exceptional in terms of how it answers customer needs, is responsible,” he continues.  

“Business should be more product and services-led around customer needs. Then, once the organisation has developed something it believes and through research and asking customers looks to be of real value and will resonate with the target audience, there should a business case to show the need to go to market in different mediums with very measurable outcomes.

“That’s where there’s friction between the CMO and CFO/CEO – not being transparent enough on ROI across lots of marketing dollars being spent. It’s a very important piece to show before getting the keys to senior leadership.”

With so many channels to communicate through today and tools to automate effort, it’s easier than ever to engage customers in a more granular fashion, Foote agrees. “But it starts with understanding the customer and designing products or services that makes them realise the company really understands them and it’s fantastic,” he stresses.  

That where more robust data to articulate your business cases becomes an imperative, Foote says.

“Even in difficult situations, people have challenges and want to grow revenue, to experience less churn, and they want more effective marketing spend. The marketer’s job in many cases is to ensure the business case and data they’re presenting is very solid,” he says.  


Throughout his career, keeping a tight relationship between marketing and sales has been a vital for Foote, who says sales are often at the coal face with the customer. What’s changed is sales as an approach has gone from highly linear engagement, where people managed up and down, to a very complex environment where people manage across and every which way.

“Marketing plays a key role there,” he says. In addition, to be highly effective, today’s marketers need to understand technology, finance and operations so they can communicate effectively across the business and make sure the brand vision is being brought to life.

“Businesses succeed or otherwise by their closeness to the customer,” Foote adds.

Of course, it’s not just marketers who need to keep up their knowledge around customers. Foote is also clear on the need for more CEOs and boards to get up to scratch too. To help, AIM launched a course last year, entitled ‘digital marketing for non-marketers’, to encourage more leaders to build an understanding of programmatic media, Google, social, how targeting works across these platforms, and gathering data from these platforms.

“Traditionally these have been marketing tools but across the business you need to have more understanding,” he says. “The good news is there’s a realisation there needs to be that understanding and contributing to decision in these areas to be highly effective in business.”

Foote hopes the trend he’s starting to see of people from product and marketing backgrounds being placed in CEO is just the first wave in a new form of company leadership.

“I look forward to a second wave as boards realise their importance, and they’re replacing the CFOs,” he concludes. “At the moment, it feels like CFOs and business owners/entrepreneurs have ended up running businesses and now dominate boards across Australia. The latter are important, but it’s much more an admin rather than leadership function. We need to see more product and marketing than number guys as chiefs.”

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