5 ways leading CMOs are building connection with their CEOs

Marketing chiefs from Greencross, MyDeal, Audi, West HQ and National Australia Bank explain what's key to a CMO building a better connection with their chief executive or managing director

According to CMO’s annual State of the CMO research, marketing leaders rate the CEO/MD as their biggest champion and advocate within the organisation. Yet the reverse is true too: Without a strong CEO connection, marketing leaders rarely get to do the big ‘M’ marketing they’re keen to orchestrate.  

So what does it take to truly build a great, strategic connection with your CEO/MD? Here, we ask five of Australia’s leading marketing chiefs to talk through the learning they’ve gained working to forge relationships with their CEO, from the metrics and measurement approach that has helped, through to the cultural and visionary connection they need to be successful.  

Build the total narrative  

Adriane McDermott

Chief marketing officer, Greencross  

When I started as CMO of Greencross, I was told we needed to build our ‘total narrative’. This can mean many things, so it was important to get clarity first. I spent some time to develop a customer and brand roadmap, one that classically started with segmentation, targeting and positioning.  

Adriane McDermottCredit: Seafolly
Adriane McDermott

I then turned to clear milestones for key initiatives, customer experience and a connected platform vision. What my CEO (and the business) really wanted was holistic thinking - a way to orient around a unique, compelling value proposition for each brand. I’ve learned a journey of a thousand things to do, and a hundred conversations to have, starts with a map to stay the course. It becomes the reference point for orientation. Questions for clarity, whiteboard sessions and calibration are needed often, not just with the CEO but with everyone.  

A good CMO also understands the monthly business rhythm and how key stakeholders that matter inside and outside of the executive team are kept informed. A CMO’s job is to make sure the brand and customer story is told at the right time.  

Customer metrics and business objectives have to be clearly evident and progress reported at the right time. Customer KPIs can’t just be reported, good commentary behind the numbers has to be intimately known and communicated. It’s a week-by-week demonstration of how activity aligns to outcomes and goals, and what actions will be taken as a result.  

In the end, a good relationship is built on assurance. And assurance is given when the CMO’s marketing strategy is not just aligned to the business strategy, it is the business strategy. And it delivers.  

Know the right numbers  

Ryan Gracie

Chief marketing officer, MyDeal  

I’ve had varied experiences working with CEOs as well as founders across my career, and founders who have also been CEOs. What I’ve learnt is that it comes down to having the metrics.  

You need to have the numbers, be able to tell the story behind the numbers, what’s fuelling them and how we can change them. You need to be proactive about forecasting them, foretelling any bad news as well as good news on the horizon.  

CEOs will eventually look to the CMO for answers behind why things are the way they are – good, bad or otherwise. Once you come armed with numbers and the metrics behind all these levers of growth, they will almost see you as an Oracle who can foretell the future based on what’s happened in the past. So corralling the numbers is very powerful as a CMO.   

Ryan GracieCredit: Catch Group
Ryan Gracie

I look in detail at a very long list of different numbers every day as my key marketing metrics. I don’t ever want the CEO to get bogged down in those, but I do want them to look at the influences on cost per acquisition, influences on conversion rate and lifetime value especially, as well as how they all play into each other.  

As a pure-play online business at Catch and now MyDeal, I can be very measured in the numbers we look at. I generally like to use the equation of impressions + conversion rate + AVO = GTV. Alongside each of those metrics, I then look at how we can make any influence on them.  

At MyDeal, a large focus of the business is on conversion rate. That’s not just about getting the right traffic, it’s also the right product at the right price. I’m using a lot of data around products and price comparisons in market to illustrate that can’t sell things that are not competitively price or aren’t great brands or products.  

It’s not just marketing metrics either, but other health measurements in play such as Net Promoter Score (NPS), customer feedback we’re receiving, either verbatim or across key pillars like delivery, speed, rating and overall CSAT scores. Making sure our 1100 aggregate sellers are doing the right thing by scoring via NPS as individual sellers is key. This allows us to go into the detail of looking at their health and making sure they are following up customer queries, sending the right product and getting it out of the warehouse quickly.  

Once you measure NPS over the long term, and see the ebbs and flows, you can start to pinpoint where the business need helps across key drivers such as brand health, price and product.  

When joining a new business, there is definitely an education process that has to happen between CMO and CEO. MyDeal has always had a very lean team – a few months ago there were only 35 people, and today it’s only 60. Customers have always been a focus, but the metrics have not. So we are building up NPS metrics as a mandatory measure for success.  

Unless we have a finger on the pulse of how customers think, and a sentiment measure, how can we make the right, meaningful changes that are going to make their lives better? We’re on track to go live with NPS in September. It’s the most efficient way of compiling what people think about your organisation – it’s a clear measure, and I know the NPS in other organisations, so it’s a clear benchmark.  

Once you can demonstrate you are commercially minded and sound, and that you can think like the CFO and COO but act like a CMO and colour in at the same time, you’re really gaining a CEO’s trust. If I hadn’t built that commercial nous at Catch Group, I wouldn’t have survived. Being able to bring that to this new role at MyDeal has been a real bonus.  

One learning I gained from my previous CEO is how to frame any conversation around an initiative. I talk about what we are doing, what we have learnt, what we are thinking and what we are going to do next. The ‘what’ we are doing is what is happening now; then it’s about what we have learnt, and what we’re putting into place; and what we are thinking is generally leading into what we are going to do next.  

Taking this approach rounds out the full story, leaves no gaps and overcomes most objections while providing a clear plan and roadmap to go forward. You can’t just walk in and say there is a problem. You need to outline what you’re thinking about the problem, what you’ve learnt and your learnings on how to fix it and what you’re going to do next.  

Shared vision, ambition and risk appetite  

Michaela Chan

Chief marketing officer, West HQ  

I am deeply grateful to have worked for two visionary CEOs, oOh!media’s Brendon Cook and now Richard Errington to fully deliver destination property, West HQ, as the leading entertainment, tourism, hospitality and fitness destination of Western Sydney. Both highly regarded and established leaders in their respective industries, they recognise the value of marketing to drive transformation and deliver sustainable business results.  

Michaela ChanCredit: West HQ
Michaela Chan

For CMOs to build a symbiotic CEO connection, we need to work with strong CEOs who value change and realise how critical it is to business resilience and growth. A successful working relationship between CMO/CEO needs to be well-balanced and deliberate - a shared vision, a long-term commercial strategy and a tactical plan based on ‘live and learn’ (aka continuous improvement).   

Risks need to be taken together, new ways of doing things have to be considered and CMO performance needs to be accountable and measured by hard business results such as new customers, increased revenue and improved NPS.   

CMO/CEO communication is also critical. Operational requirements such as scorecards and business reviews are necessary, but most valuable is the informal communication. The face-to-face discussions Richard and I have provide a weekly snapshot and pulse across key projects, programs and most importantly, our people. Truly visionary CEOs are people leaders, and they appreciate knowing who is having a work anniversary, who is having a baby and ways they can continue to engage with employees.  

During my time at oOh!, Brendon had a significant focus on real-time data. In 2018, we had an Australian industry first, using telco data to understand how to reach the lucrative $10 billion+ Chinese traveller as they moved around Australia. We commercialised the hypothesis and set an ambitious sales target - the impact of a visionary CEO. Sales targets were met as we had a clear vision, a dedicated work team and a digital and data steering committee sponsored by Brendon.  

Most recently at West HQ, as one of Western Sydney largest non-government employers, we are a diverse business with a profound impact within the community, on our employees and with our customers.   

As a visionary and longstanding CEO, Richard values diversity and an alternative perspective. In the first 90 days I was asked to share my initial observations. I was fresh to the organisation and had come from a destination marketing background.  

That ‘share’ formed the base of a business plan. In the last six months, a new brand campaign has been launched, an additional communications agency has been engaged and a new major media partnership formed. A new a-la-carte restaurant in the Novotel has opened, our signature branded food and beverage menus have expanded and marketing has been working across the organisation to drive operations to delivery an optimal customer experience.   

As we continue to evolve West HQ, Richard has shared with me how important it is to continue to curate this fresh perspective together, to ensure it has impact and longevity in keeping the business relevant. We are proud of the outcomes – we are attracting new customers who spend more time with us, and we will continue to provide a new way for people to experience the heart of Western Sydney.  

The CMO as company connector  

Nikki Warburton

Former chief customer and marketing officer, Audi  

The CEO should use the CMO as the glue that connects the company. CMOs have strong communication and relationship skills and a deep knowledge of the customer and the customer journey.  

CMOs that collaborate across the organisation can facilitate the right decisions being made for our customers and ensure accountability along the customer journey. This provides an opportunity for the CMO to help create the future growth plans for the business, it’s strategic priorities and a strong culture.  

Nikki WarburtonCredit: NIkki Warburton
Nikki Warburton

From a more functional perspective, CEOs are looking for a strategic team player that can drive organisational change and growth. With a global pandemic, customer uncertainty and periods of stop and start trading for businesses marketing has never been more important. Marketers know their customers, their market environment and market trends. We have a huge opportunity to lead companies through organisational change. The role of a CMO has been changing over the years but the last 18months has made it even more critical.  

The CEO looks to the CMO to drive innovation and growth based on their knowledge of the customer. The customer experience is driven by digital, data and technology and can become the key differentiator for most business.  

In the height of the first Covid wave, Audi’s customer, product and marketing team made it our goal to lead innovation and change and develop new ways to connect with our customers in the most appropriate way. It allowed innovative and creative ideas to be delivered that drove positive results for the business and reignited the passion in our team. This resulted in a different conversation with the MD and other department heads moving away from ‘how much will that cost’ to ‘what else can we do and how much do you need’.  

Another important learning for CMOs is to include the CEO in defining the marketing vision and purpose. As a result, your objectives ensure there is clarity on what they expect from you. This ensures alignment and ensures expectations are managed. CEOs will then become your biggest advocate and supporter throughout the business.  

Build relationships across the whole value chain  

Suzana Ristevski

Executive, group marketing, National Australia Bank  

There is no doubt the relationship between the CMO and CEO is an important one. But to be frank, relationships across the whole value chain are important. One thing I have learnt is you will get a lot more respect from your CEO if you have the respect of all the c-suite executives sitting in your organisation.  

Suzana RistevskiCredit: NAB
Suzana Ristevski

All CEOs I have worked for want to know the CMO has things in hand. That we are clear on what the organisation is trying to achieve, that we understand the strategic approach we will be taking to achieve those objectives, that we understand our customers and the market context we operate in. That we are aligning our always finite resources to deliver on our part of the equation.  

You can’t do any of that if you aren’t collaborating, debating and aligning with your stakeholders. Succinctly outlining the options and the trade-off decisions are super important. Presenting one-sided proposals up the line are never ever effective.  

One example of impressing the boss at NAB was when we highlighted the top five things that needed to be done to move the company forward with our marketing tech stack. We articulated the trade-offs we are making, the business case (cost out/revenue up/customer impact) and gained endorsement from our CIO, CFO and business leaders before it went up for approval. By the time it got to the CEO, it was easy for him to approve.  

CMOs have to have the confidence to track input and output levers but only present up the output metrics to the CEO. We often want to show the CEO how smart we are and how complicated marketing can be. But we really should be focusing on telling the CEO what they need to hear.  

I think it’s also useful to occasionally include your CEO in the fun stuff. Just recently, I took my CEO through some very early creative concepts. It gave him the opportunity to step out of the numbers and into the world of ‘art’. Invites to the occasional focus groups, ethnographic studies or marketing show cases are also winners. And of course, be ready to have an intelligent response when you get that random call from your CEO about an idea they have after seeing a competitor ad in the press, or some outdoor billboard inspires them.  

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