All in good time: What this year's CMO50 tells us about the state of marketing leadership

CMO and our CMO50 judges reflect on this year's submission and what it takes to be an innovative and effective marketing leader in these unprecedented times


Marketing teams pride themselves on their ability to tap the consumer and cultural zeitgeist to bring their brands to life and generate growth. It’s this connection to market sentiment and trends that’s also given smart modern marketers who are both digitally and data savvy the tools to generate true business impact during the past 18 months of the crisis.

It’s the seventh year of the CMO50, our annual program recognising the standout work done by Australia’s most innovative and effective marketing leaders. As we’ve continued through the Covid-19 pandemic, we’ve seen the concept of effectiveness as well as the role of the CMO take on different shades of meaning and responsibility. This was laid bare across this year’s submissions.

In some quarters, the boon brands have experienced thanks to the tailwinds of the pandemic continued to propel growth, innovation and customer demand in ways previously unthought of, but welcomed. For others, headwinds were persistently challenging, requiring resiliency, adaptability and grit.

In either case, that precious ability to ‘pivot’ again proved paramount as brands navigated their way through. This was the essential capability for marketing leaders and their teams as they worked to adjust marketing programs of work to respond to accelerating digital and experience behaviours, changing customer values and needs.

At an emotional and human level, community contribution also became a catch cry and consumers demanded to see broader purpose and vision in action. The best of the CMO50 this year challenged their organisations to rise up and deliver on such demands.

For CMO50 judges, balancing the broader impacts of the pandemic with the achievements of marketing leaders and their teams was a unique challenge this year. As long-serving CMO50 judge, David Morgan, remarked, some businesses did extremely well because of Covid and others did not.

“For example, domestic travel and meal delivery did well because people had been stuck at home, not going out, and want variety. It doesn’t mean the marketing teams didn’t do a good job, but it was harder to pin down the impact of the job they did do relative to the context they were in,” he commented.

For fellow judge and now CEO of a medical tech startup, Lisa Winn, unprecedented times meant putting a qualitative lens across the CMO’s impact and contribution. She noted an “interesting correlation” in a few instances of industries experiencing tailwinds in a good way but submissions not living up to the desired mark of well-thought through strategies and programs.

Yet non-executive director and former CMO, Georgie Williams, another long-serving CMO50 judge, saw standout work across those CMOs who had doubled down on the tailwinds. “You could see they’d used that to take out adjacencies and capitalised on new income streams. They were the guys who were really thinking about how to move,” she said.

Check out the full list of CMO50 for 2021 here


Role and remit

Debate in the CMO50 judging room this year once again turned to the ongoing question of when a CMO stops being a CMO and how unique a contribution marketing can have across an organisation. Coming up with one defined position on the remit of a CMO was an impossible task given the breadth and scope of impact our CMO50 displayed this year.

Zuni MD and CMO50 judge, Mike Zeederberg, highlighted how the accelerating trends of customer journey mapping, CRM, data and martech investment are changing the impact CMOs can have across their organisations.

CMO50 2021: Key statisticsCredit: IDG
CMO50 2021: Key statistics


“It shows marketers are getting much closer to the entire customer journey than they ever have before,” he said. “For example, they’re much more engaged with sales teams and in sales forecasting at the top end, and at the bottom end, better engaged in conversion of product sales, channel stats and experience. It’s an expansion of marketing roles because of this digital space and customer journeying, and it’s allowing marketers to be much more engaged across the business.

“Some of the people that would have traditionally been talking about brand positioning and communications are detailing new product innovations, building out digital opportunities, cross-selling and upselling. It’s an interesting phase of CMO development.” 

As Morgan pointed out, marketers in packaged goods and FMCG have classically been very close to the customer journey and sales operation. “It’s probably been much less so the case in digital, and that’s where we’re seeing this now emerge,” he said. 

But the difference for Zeederberg is packaged goods have not been able to remain as close to the customer given the explosion of digital channels and digitally driven data insights and direct personalisation.

“What we are seeing now is data at scale, and more brand custodians moving from the colouring-in department to providing consumer insights that lead to innovation in the product space,” he continued. “CMOs are also demonstrating they’re understanding where blockages in the sales funnels are and helping remove them, as well as working across broader teams.

“Marketers are moving from the guys that market about stuff to being far more core to business. We’re getting closer to the idea that it’s not unreasonable for CMOs to become CROs, CEOs and step up. As opposed to being the CFOs that have that step up.” 

This was also evident in how the top 50 shared examples of commercial acumen. Many positioned outcomes against cost of acquisition, contribution to bottom and top-line growth and customer lifetime value, rather than pure campaign metrics such as reach.

“It’s interesting to see that shift from marketing as pure communications and brand awareness, to marketer as an actual business driver and innovator. It is something that’s definitely changed over the last 3-4 years,” Zeederberg added.

New judge and former CMO50 top 10 marketer, Susan Massasso, agreed it was “terrific” to see the marketer’s role being expanded.

“There was more than one entry where through the life of their tenure, the CMO had an expanded and more commercial role,” she said, agreeing has been facilitated and accelerated in part by data and the digital application of it.

“It’s great for our profession as a whole that we are being seen as far more integral to driving business growth. You could see that in a lot of the reference comments from CEOs in support of their CMOs’ submissions too,” she said. 

Challenging the status quo

Winn pointed out last year’s examples of organisational and broader business impact were more commonly around things like upping HR and the employee value proposition.

“What I see this year across a good dozen is leaders driving far more strategic change,” she said. “These CMOs are going right back to questioning the purpose of the organisation of products and services and challenging that. They’re taking their people on the journey and recommending products as a business and SKUs, pivoting everyone around a direction. What you also saw were CEOs really backing these individuals.

“It was quite fascinating to see and the biggest change I noted across submissions this year. There were examples of big impact around the future of the organisation and using Covid as the opportunity to stop, question and really align people around the way forward. I didn’t think we’d seen a lot of that over the last few years but there was a good number this year.”  

There’s no doubt that over the course of the pandemic, CMOs have been presented with opportunities to do more questioning and championing for change. Across CMO’s 2020 Conversations over a Cuppa with CMO series, marketing leaders commonly shared a feeling of gaining permission to take bold steps and do things differently.

The question is whether this disruptive impact is sustainable once the crisis is over. An indicator is CMO’s own State of the CMO survey. During the heights of the first Covid wave, perceptions of marketing rose to unprecedented highs. This however, dipped in the 2021 survey conducted in May, when Australia wasn’t in lockdown.

During Covid, CEOs looked to strategic CMOs to lead the way through the crisis, not just using communications but by providing granular, contextually relevant customer insights and a constant gauge on market sentiment. They’ve reached out to CMOs for ideas on how to work through digital acceleration, how to continue to achieve growth and how to keep momentum going.

“The number of business pivots and products created in Covid because they had to that then turned into a new idea and were kept and pursued further were plentiful,” Zeederberg said. “This innovation is being caused by a crisis but leading to a different way of doing things.”  

For returning judge and partner at 100 Percent Partners, Michele Phillips, the standard of CMO entries this year was exceptional and even higher than last year.

“CMOs are demonstrating the role of marketing is critical to their organisations attracting customers and building revenue. The CMOs that stand out are those that demonstrate financial impact and working cross functionally with colleagues in finance, sales, supply chain and IT, and where marketing is not a silo,” she said. “These CMOs will benefit from enhanced career progression.”

Morgan added if the post-Covid future of Australian business in the hands of our marketing leaders, we’re looking at a bright future.

“The toughest year ever for marketers to succeed, but the best year ever for CMO50 entries. The future of Australian marketing is in great hands,” he said.    

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