Chief growth officer: The new CMO executive frontier?

Should chief marketing officers be looking to rebrand to the increasingly popular title, chief growth officer, or is it a bad move? We investigate

In recent weeks, speculation has risen as to whether the number of global brands appointing chief growth officers rather than CMOs signals another executive marketing makeover is underway.

The latest move came from Kimberly-Clark, which recruited former Johnson & Johnson marketer, Alison Lewis, as its first global chief growth officer in July. It’s a role not only incorporating marketing oversight, but leading corporate research and engineering efforts to innovate. Lewis is also expected to play a key role in initiatives improving commercial capabilities that drive growth.

Similarly, Mars appointed former president of Mars Wrigley Confectionery US, Berta de Pablos, as its first global chief growth officer in January. Another marketing veteran, de Pablo’s remit was pitched as a way to drive decisiveness, speed up decision-making and accelerate capabilities to help the FCMG giant better serve the consumers and retailers of the future.

Both brands arguably followed the lead of Coca-Cola, which ditched the CMO role in 2017 in favour of a chief growth officer that merged marketing with strategy, customer and commercial leadership. Appointee, Francisco Crespo, previously Mexico business unit head, was a 28-year company veteran, holding general manager, board and commercial positions. Eighteen months on, the company described the decision as broadening and changing the outlook and approach of its marketing function.

Of course, like many job titles in circulation, ‘chief growth officer’ isn’t a new phenomenon. Back in 2004, articles such as this one on MarketingProfs proclaimed the rise of the chief growth officer, asking whether it was the right approach for companies to take in the millennial age.

But are the latest series of chief growth officer hires a sign marketing leadership must finally take up a new guise? Are they indicative of dissatisfaction with current CMO performance? And is this further repositioning at a c-suite level helpful or harmful to the marketing cause?

The misconceptions about growth

According to Wavemaker chief product and growth officer, James Hier, the job “says what it does on the package”. “It’s a change-driven title and people tend to react to that,” he tells CMO.

Hier suggests the concept of a ‘growth’ gained its roots in Silicon Valley startup culture, growth hacking, and the continual search for growth. But it’s also this literal tying of growth with acquisition that potentially presents pitfalls. While he may be a chief growth officer himself, Hier is quick to point out narrow-minded views on growth are fraught with danger.

“Startup culture has been about growth at all costs, which is not necessarily as applicable to other businesses,” he says. “Growth hacking tends to be short-term – a sugar rush – driven by acquisition instead of looking across your business.

“Businesses also like the idea of growth as they have quarterly targets. This perhaps allows them to hit these more often, because they are not thinking long-term enough anymore. Balancing what growth means both short and long term is key.” 

The relevance of a ‘growth’ officer must therefore be considered in the context of the business you are in.

“Growth is migration to more premium products or higher volume products; it’s switching, which is share of market; and diversification of your business and master brand. And it happens to be acquisition as well,” Hier says. “To lean into only one of these is dangerous because there are multiple ways you actually grow.”

A CMO’s place

Such various levers of growth have arguably always been important components of a marketer’s remit. But using ‘growth’ in a c-suite title does lend itself to building one KPI that can corral cross-functional parts of an organisation to work to together.

“That’s the power of it – the single-minded ability to aim towards without losing the long-term thinking that growth comes from all parts of the business,” Hier says. “While marketers have always looked to growth, there are so many other parts of the business you have to influence to get growth, which you are not responsible for.” 

Because it’s ultimately influencing power that’s key for marketing leaders now, whether they have a ‘growth’ title or not.

“It’s not just leading the growth agenda, it’s leading people that can help you deliver that growth,” Hier says. “Retention may be part of growth, for example, but you may not control that area of your business. Yet you have to influence and engage in order to create an integrated growth agenda.”  

It’s the unification of accountability and responsibility that LGIAsuper chief growth officer, Andrea Peters, sees driving her role’s popularity. Peters is the first chief growth officer appointed by the Australian superannuation firm and boasts of a background in data analytics, marketing and product.

She describes the advancement of chief growth officers as reflecting the disconnect between expectations of the CMO function, and the reality.

“It depends on maturity, company size and industry, but there is a consistent challenge in organisations between what areas are responsible for, versus what they are accountable for,” she says.  “I’ve seen that as a struggle in other companies I’ve worked for. My role now combines the two and brings responsibility with accountability.

“My experience in other companies is when you’re running product functions siloed from marketing, you are held accountable for P&L but you don’t have the ability pull all the levers. It’s equally frustrating for marketers, who are responsible for driving awareness and volumes but not held accountable for the end result. Then there’s a mismatch on who has the budget.”

CMO Council VP marketing, Liz Miller, is another supporter of the chief growth officer title, and agrees it’s a way of rebranding CMOs to better reflect what it is they actually have been striving to do in the first place.

“It has helped eliminate some c-functional confusion about what marketers should and shouldn’t be,” she says. “When I look at any title, my question is always: What is the territory that goes with it? That’s fundamentally been the problem with CMOs from the jump as well.”  

In the early days, a ‘CMO’ wasn’t necessarily seen by many functions across the business as a serious business function, Miller comments.  

“As it has evolved, marketing has adopted a business language over a brand language. We’re now going in with terms like sales enablement, pipeline filling, customer engagement, how multi-touch attribution is closing the gap across the journey, and we are having far more sophisticated business conversations and status as a result,” she says. “The natural evolution of that is more and more CMOs are being brought on to their organisations to drive growth.”  

It’s a remit reflected in this year’s State of the CMO report, with 59 per cent of respondents stating their CEO’s top priority for the CMO is playing a direct role in corporate growth initiatives.

“Many people in these growth, CMO and customer experience roles are what I consider to be true CMOs – they’re embodying what a CMO should be doing for their organisation,” Miller continues. “Marketers should be working hand in glove with CEOs to identify growth and how to get there, and orchestrating a move for all functional leaders to sing from the same song sheet.”

Yet many CMO feel stymied accomplishing such a task. According to Miller, one reason is functional counterparts who don’t agree, or are too busy protecting their own turf. Like Hier, she also believes growth is too often misinterpreted as sales transactions, again causing friction with sales teams.

In contrast, chief growth officers will be important to organisations looking at growth as the driver for profitability and success.

“We’ll always need a c-level function to orchestrate, accelerate and optimise sales, plus seasoned executives looking at brand. But the CMO – that chief growth officer – is looking across the business at all opportunities,” Miller says. “They’re looking at the function of brand to create cross-sell and upsell. They’re creating CX strategies uniting all departments in order to create long-lasting, loyal and profitable relationships with customers.

“This [chief growth officer] role takes everything a CMO should be doing and put it into focus.”

Up next: Can CMOs just waltz into a chief growth office role? Plus how prevalent can we expect these roles to become?

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Rising to growth chief

But can CMOs simply waltz into a chief growth officer role? Or are there gaps in their arsenal?

“You can have gaps and still hold the role but you have to understand what the role entails, which is to influence, manage and lead the growth drivers of the business into an integrated product or purpose,” Hier responds. “It’s about being someone who can orient and coordinate all these different streams to drive growth. 

“Even if you had the loyalty piece, MPD or IT in your role, there will still be another piece of the business contributing to growth you are not in charge of but still need to influence. But by signalling someone is in charge of that agenda, you can lead and influence to ensure a coordinated growth agenda understood by everyone.” 

What’s changed for marketers is their ability and credibility to influence and lead other parts of the business that don’t report into them, Hier continues.

“You may have functions with stronger clout in the organisation or that are more revered,” he says. “For example, if engineers are held up high in your organisation, you need to get them to understand the growth agenda so products or timelines are in keeping with the cadence of a quarterly earning business.”

By way of example, Hier points to Unilever, which halved the time it took to turnaround product development to bend to the growth agenda. chief growth officer, Amy O’Connor, rebranded herself from CMO to chief growth officer as a way to better reflect the startup’s corporate journey. The emotion detection technology producer is early stages of building out its go-to-market penetration, and looking to complete a Series A funding round.

“It’s [chief growth officer] a good one for companies with a steep growth trajectory – some marketers can’t handle that pace and look for more structure,” she says.

O’Connor puts the applicability of a chief growth officer title to personality, with an appetite to take risks and cross-functional collaboration key. “There will be times when things will need to settle and the company needs more stability and a CMO, like in our business, would provide that,” she says.

Peters also believes CMOs being natural choices for chief growth officer depends on experience and skillset.

“Those coming from an agency background would struggle to go into an area like this. But those who’ve done more client-side marketing, and in particular, below-the-line and more targeted and digital marketing, plus who understand metrics and how those deliver to the bottom line, would do very well in these functions,” she says.

Yet if Hier didn’t hold his current title, he wouldn’t be Wavemaker’s CMO. And that’s because in the context of an agency, the role has to be different, he says. What’s more, Hier has product stewardship, a rarity across many forms of chief growth officer.

He describes his role in two parts. The first is finding growth by understanding corporate growth levers, then leading, working and influencing different parts of the business to deliver. The second is helping set a growth agenda for end clients.

“There are four ‘mores’ we talk about for growth – people, share, volume and value. They tell you what your strategy is and help you to understand what you need to do,  he says. “If you can’t do that, I can’t tell you which are the right audiences or channels or how to use them.”  

Alongside marketers, Miller posits chief digital officers as good alternatives to assume the growth mantle. “These individuals know and understand the importance of digital transformation in profitability, plus they work well cross-functionally across IT, marketing and sales and have a footprint across all four functions,” she points out.

“There will also be situations when the COO rebrands. There’s no single source of chief growth officer.”  

There are, however, common traits for success. While agreeing the role can be person-specific, Wisetech chief growth officer, Gail Williamson, identifies systems thinking as a common trait for anyone in her role, regardless of industry. Having experience in other functional roles over time, cross-functional interactions and thinking, a change agent mentality and operational mindset are also important.

“You also have to keep one eye on culture and retention,” she adds.  

Chief growth officers also need to be individuals who not only know and understand the language the business runs on – whether that’s on finance, product or operational lines – but also have experience in field sales and field marketing, Miller says.

“They will have understood the customer from both angles, and foundationally the operations and plumbing making the business go,” she adds. “It won’t be a classical functional position, and that’s going to blow the minds of traditional organisational archetypes and structure.”  

To be or not to be

So does it follow all organisations today must have a chief growth officer?

Miller sees chief growth officers cropping up in two radically different camps. The first is fast moving and cloud-based companies used to organic growth happening quickly, who are now experiencing slower slow and needing to shake up the status quo of brand and sales enablement.

“We’ll also see it in large matrix portfolio organisations, where they haven’t necessarily known how to classify this type of roles, especially large B2C and manufacturing organisations,” she says. “Traditionally, the CMO has been the steward of the brand, because it’s vitally important and the advertising and cost controls have been essential. That’s where you get people like Keith Weed [former Unilever CMO] overseeing masterbrands propping up all these other brands.

“You still need those traditional brand officers. But you also need someone to be the bridge between that sexy social media and creative brand persona, and that intense sales enablement with channel and partners.”  

Hier comes back to a clear understanding of how growth happens in your business and industry.

“The media business is challenging – all our clients are on a perpetual search for reach. It’s understanding that sometimes a piece of technology can be the best way to reach someone to fulfil your growth agenda,” he says of his own experience. “It’s bringing the different parts of the business that could add to your growth agenda.

“If CMOs don’t understand all the levers of growth and four types of innovation in MPD with all the different returns, that’s a dereliction of duty… As a chief growth officer, you have to understand these to do this role well.”

For Miller, bringing on a chief growth officer or not isn’t a question of whether marketing remains relevant or not today. After all, instant coffee didn’t kill off other forms of coffee.

“There are lots of people saying we have to kill the office of the CMO; marketing is irrelevant. No, it’s just the CMO needed a new robe as you people didn’t understand what they are doing. But I do think it’s part of that progression and evolution,” she says. “It’s everything to do with an organisation understanding what it is it they are asking CMOs for.”  

A recent CMO Council study with 30 CMOs who’d been in their jobs for less than a year found 80 per cent felt the role they accepted was nothing like what they have since found themselves doing.

“You have the CEO saying fix the marketing machine, focus on the customer, help us pursue customer loyalty and experience. But when you get in, you are asked to accelerate sales enablement programs, and get sales to close faster,” Miller says.

 “The goal is to bring in a transformation change agent that will shift marketing to a growth engine. And yes, it’s the machine is broken. But it’s not necessarily broken because of marketing.”  

Which is ultimately why anyone taking up a chief growth officer must question the territory first and foremost, Miller adds.

“What are the boundaries and parameters? Like sticky mud, where are you going to end up seeping? Do you have cross-functionality authority to institute change? If a company is going to hire that kind of role, then they have to know that chief growth officer has to be change agent first, and a strategist,” she concludes.

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