CMO50 2020 and the very essence of marketing

We look at what this year's list of most effetcive and innovative marketing leaders says about the balance of art and science in modern marketing

There was a serious, earnest tone to the bulk of the CMO50 submissions this year. That’s not surprising given the crises we’ve had to navigate in this unfathomable of years – from devastating bushfires to a global COVID-19 pandemic and the health, economic and societal tsunamis created in its wake.

But also lying at the heart of the CMO50 this year was one of the most important questions our profession is still working to answer: Just what exactly does modern marketing even mean?

The industry has been debating the battle between creative, reach-driven, brand-led marketing on the one hand and data and technology fuelled, customer engagement-oriented, performance-driven marketing on the other, for quite some time now. If this year’s CMO50 submissions are any indication, that battle is still raging.

Yet there’s also growing consensus the very best CMOs will find a way to do both, and that one can’t ultimately exist without the other.

It’s the sixth year of the CMO50, an annual program recognising the work done by Australia’s most effective and innovative marketing leaders. In this year of the unprecedented global COVID-19 pandemic, being effective and innovative took on very different meanings depending on the category and products and services you happen to be marketing.This year's program is again brought to you by Adobe. 

As to COVID responses, several consistent approaches shone through. For one, smart marketers took the opportunity to snap up cheaper media such as TV to push brand messaging, asking for and securing additional media budget in order to take advantage of growing numbers of consumers turning on the TV in their locked down homes.

Google search data and social platforms were also clearly popular ways to keep a frequent pulse on what consumers were seeking. Others relied on quick pulse surveys, market research offerings and if they were set up for it, first-party data such as voice of customer or online usage patterns.

It was also clearly a time for brand building and fostering a strong sense of engagement with existing customers. Initially, this approach largely meant crisis communications and messages of support, safety and trust and turning off overt sales messaging. If you happened to be working for a business that didn’t already have digital engagement or commerce channels down pat, it was a time for rapid digital product, service or functional capability delivery. For those with the foundations in place, rapid acceleration ensued as consumers and businesses digitised at breakneck speed.

But as the crisis progressed, more marketers recognised they were better off differentiating through the very brand purposes they’ve been working so hard to build buy-in around. A good chunk of this year’s CMO50 shared programs of work pursuing brand purpose frameworks, development and collaboration over the past year.

Then there was the elevation of emotional IQ. Almost all CMO50 nominees talked about the resiliency and adaptability demonstrated by teams throughout the crisis. The great leaders invested significant time and effort into caring for the holistic wellbeing of their teams. Everything from walking challenges and virtual trivia to standups, town halls, one-to-one check-ins and Wellness Wednesdays was on the list.

But outside of the adaptability, resilience and ability for marketing teams to see the COVID environment as a glass half-full was the much bigger question for judges this year: Just how are we judging the modern CMO?

Non-executive director, former CMO and CMO50 judge, John Batistich, pointed to the diverse role scope represented through submissions this year, and an increase in marketers demonstrating complete product control.

“It’s very noticeable who has control and is influencing product in their organisations,” he commented in response to their impact. Batistich also pointed to heightened focus on purpose than in previous years – a side effect of the COVID crisis and bushfires but clearly something CMOs have had their hearts set on developing well before the pandemic hit. It’s work buying them influence across the organisation.

Batistich, along with several other judges including former Coca-Cola marketing chief and marketing strategist, Lisa Winn, noted continued elevation and maturity of digital and technology skills. There remains a gap between those who are investing and operating digital programs at a tactical level versus those who’ve strategically employed these tools for marketing success, Winn said.

“We saw more examples of strong digital and measurement, brand, insights and big idea thinking coming together more. That level of maturity was good to see,” she said.

Judges also agreed CMO50 contenders showed true resiliency in the face of COVID, levelling up to the challenges and work that needed to be done with a sense of optimism. “You could sense some wanted to embrace this change and saw it as an opportunity to take things in a new direction,” Winn said. “It’s good to see that positive approach to the challenges coming through.”

Yet the very essence of the CMO role was ultimately challenging for judges to arrive at this year. Experienced marketing leader and founder of Macmorgan, David Morgan, described a clear delineation between “those of a CX with martech skills and performance metrics bent, versus those driven by brand development”.

“Then there’s those few who are bringing both these sides together,” Morgan said.  “There was definitely more emphasis on the CX and personalisation programs of work this year, and then the brand focused work. Many still see these two things as separate.”

That leads us to the burning question: What do we call marketing now? And which of these should be in the remit, versus in someone else’s? “Is it all about brand management, and therefore not critical to commerce; or CX, and learning to be more commerce oriented?” Morgan asked.

While the answer is both, we haven’t yet arrived at an ideal balance of the two. If this year’s list is anything to go by though, we’re getting closer.

Meanwhile, judges noted less prevalence this year of ‘big bold bets’. Instead, submissions were dominated by examples of connectivity, commerce and gaining consensus first and foremost.

There’s also an ongoing quest to earn a place at the executive leadership table. For some judges, CMOs still have a way to go before they connect the dots on their work and driving commercial impact. Many are still shaped by sales over profit outcomes, former CMO and non-executive director, Michele Teague commented.

Former marketing and partner for 100 Percent Partners, Michele Phillips, agreed truly earning that seat requires greater effort linking to commercials that matter to the board, such as shareholder returns. “We want to see more of that from CMOs to ensure they play a vital role on the ELT and in driving business focus,” she said.

KPMG adviser and adjunct professor of marketing at the University of Sydney, Andrew Baxter, also pointed to the divide between sophisticated users of data versus those still doing customer journey mapping for the first time.  In all of this, he advised marketers to be wary of the “balance of human and digital” as they work to mature in both areas.

“But we are seeing that sense of leadership coming through. It felt there was a more holistic mentality of leaning in to running the company and enacting change on the employee and culture, which is edifying,” Baxter added. 

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