Putting CMO job tenure in the spotlight

Richard Vancil

Richard is the group vice-president of the Executive Advisory Strategies division at global analyst firm, IDC.

There was an old "rule of thumb," circulating around the CMO community, that the job tenure of a CMO was about 24 months. It is time to cast that number aside: tenure appears to be significantly expanding over the past few years.

To understand CMO job tenure, I turned to one of the definitive data sources on this issue. The executive recruiter Spencer Stuart has surveyed on this subject for a number of years. In this interview with Tom Seclow, the North American lead for Spencer Stuart's Chief Marketing Officer practice, we explore the trends and the forces of change in CMO job tenure.

Q. Spencer Stuart is known for its studies of CMO job tenure. At a high level, what are you now seeing in your data?

For our 2012 CMO tenure study, the average CMO tenure rose to 45 months, a 2-month gain over 2011 and double the average in 2006.

As for trends, we are seeing industry consolidation in some sectors, where there may actually be fewer CMO roles, but greater responsibility for sitting CMOs in these sectors. And there is no question that the marketing function has changed dramatically because of the emergence of technology, particularly in digital, social, and mobile. We see the increase in tenure as the marketing function continues to evolve, and in more and more companies, the CMO has earned a true C-suite seat at the table.

It makes sense that marketers — who act as the customer/consumer advocate inside a company — are in a position to add value throughout the business. This would include everything from product to strategy and well beyond the traditional communications responsibilities. There is no question that technology and leveraging data to make decision have given CMOs value and, along with it, a rise in job tenure.

Q. IDC conducts research on the CMO role within the IT vendor community. Today, our sense is that there is a more-than-usual CMO role vacancy rate. What are you seeing on the tenure and vacancy issue within the IT vendor industry versus other industries you serve?

While it is difficult for us to track vacancies, we do know that tenure for CMOs in technology companies tends to be greater than the overall average (60 months versus 45 months). In many technology businesses, the leaders come up from product and engineer ranks and not from marketing. We've speculated that marketing expertise in those companies may be more valued than in other businesses where marketers are more plentiful.

Q. Assuming a set of companies of similar size, perhaps $10 billion in revenue, but across different industries: Do you see greater performance expectations from the CEO for the CMO role, industry by industry?

We do see some variation based on sector. That is sometimes related to business cycles or industries trends. In the eight years that we have been keeping track, there are three industries where CMOs consistently post short average tenure: automotive (30 months), communications/media (32 months), and restaurant (32 months).

The common theme among the shorter CMO-tenured businesses is they can be characterized as highly competitive, with big advertising spending as a primary marketing tool. Perhaps the CEO has heightened expectations of the CMO when a big budget ad campaign is the main determinant of success.

Q. We have studied the CMO role since 2003. At that time, there was a wave of CMO expulsions after the dot-com bust as the "black turtlenecked" CMOs (artists, not scientists) were flushed out. Recently, I have written that the next wave of CMO vetting will be even greater as the role is not a "bet the marketing department" issue, it is a "bet the company" issue. Would you agree or disagree?

More and more CMO roles are substantial, with some taking on general management responsibilities. Plus, more CMOs have gained traction with their C-suite peers. As a result, I think you'll see more CMOs staying in their current roles longer.

There is no question that the "science" behind marketing has become more important largely because there is now technology to measure results. Even CMOs who market purely image-driven products like luxury goods and entertainment properties can support their marketing decisions with data.

Q. If a CMO is forced out by his/her boss: what is the most common job performance issue?

Most commonly CMOs fail when they are not aligned with the strategy set by the CEO. Marketers who are busy creating (and spending) toward programs that don't directly tie to the success of the business, however defined by its leader, become vulnerable. However, with tools to measure marketing initiatives and their direct impact on the business, CMOs have data to support their contributions. We also see in some organizations a misunderstanding of the expectations for the CMO.

Q. Let me oversimplify consumer marketing as mass markets, mass media, and massive data issues. And let me oversimplify B2B marketing as targeted markets, long sales cycles, and a complex marketing-to-sales interplay. Can a B2C CMO migrate to become a B2B CMO? Or vice versa? Which migration path might have the best chance of success?

It is far more common to see a marketer move from B2C businesses to B2B than the reverse. Generally speaking, B2C businesses have more marketing resources, and with that comes greater sophistication and training, thus making it difficult to gain that experience later in a marketer's career.

I think it would be a bit of a generalization to say that one path is more likely to find success than the other. Regardless if it's B2C or B2B, success is more predictable if the primary skill sets required are clearly articulated and the needed competencies are matched up against these skill sets.

Tags: careers, cmos, job tenure

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