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CMOs are being shut out when C-suites need them more than ever: Bruce Philp

Branding has never been more important, but CMOs are often outside looking in

Man left out of meeting looking through boardroom window


In Daniel H. Pink’s clear-headed management book Drive, he offered up a recipe for motivating the 21st-century workforce. To love your work enough to fully dedicate yourself to it, he said, it has to have three things going for it: autonomy, mastery and purpose. In other words, if you have some control over what you do all day, feel like you’re competent at it and think it’s all for a good reason, then you’ve got an awesome job and you should be pretty happy about that. Which, I suppose, means that if you’re a chief marketing officer in 2014, you probably feel as if you’re about one whiteboard brainstorming session away from cleaning eavestroughs.

Being a chief marketing officer has never been a cakewalk, of course. Autonomy in that role is always a tricky business, given that you’re never far from someone who thinks they can do the job better. If you’re extra lucky, that someone might even be your CEO. Likewise, it’s challenging to feel like you’ve ever really mastered the craft. At the best of times, everything a CMO does is a gamble with ephemeral and uncertain results; that’s a hundred times truer now, with marketing tools multiplying faster than anyone could truthfully claim to keep up with. Just because you can wear jeans to work doesn’t mean you’re having a good time.

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But in Pink’s trinity, it’s purpose that must give CMOs the most heartburn. As it is traditionally defined, the role embodies responsibilities that are the tip of the spear for everything else an organization does—everything—and yet the internal fight for legitimacy seems to be the greatest challenge it faces. In the latest State of Marketing study by the CMO Council, the “mindset of senior management” and “internal politics” ranked second and third behind “budget constraints” as CMOs’ biggest frustrations. Competitors and consumers didn’t even make the list. More than two-thirds of chief marketing officers don’t think the role gets the same respect as other executive functions. It’s as if corporate leadership decided that market demand must be ambient, like air, and thus needs merely to be managed rather than built.

The more closely you look, the more absurd the underestimation of marketing becomes. In any competitive category, there is no more accurate predictor of a company’s prospects than how many people know and trust its brand. Yet even as marketing budgets have risen and the number of ways a brand touches its customers has proliferated, the authority of CMOs to coherently control the experience has eroded. Take digital marketing as an example: By 2017, CMOs will be directing more corporate technology spending than chief information officers will, and yet CIOs are more likely to have chairs in the C-suite, where the corporate agenda gets set. From IT to customer service to human resources, the brand experience is balkanizing at the very moment it needs to be most unified.

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To be fair, some of the problem lies in how seriously marketing has been taking itself lately. Just a few months ago, this column’s critique of one company’s marketing professionalism was met with a vigorous defence on Twitter, even as the company was posting a recruitment ad for a marketing manager requiring just two to five years’ experience (which didn’t even have to be in marketing). It’s not an isolated case. The abstruse nature of the job, combined with the accessibility of its tools, has created the sense that all you need to be a marketer is the talent your mom always said you had, plus fashionable glasses. Such amateurism does nothing to encourage CEOs to let marketing sit with the grown-ups.

But that, inarguably, is where it should be. Chief marketing officers and CEOs share one all-consuming purpose: growth. Everyone else at that table is at least partly concerned with what it will cost, how to manage it or how to share its spoils. But no executive function will ever have more influence on CEOs’ legacy than marketing. If they don’t have CMOs sitting at their right hands, they’d better be ready to do the job themselves. And have the thick skin to go with it.