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Breaking the Two-Year Curse: How CMOs can ensure their success—and their jobs

How long is the average CMO’s tenure? Shorter and shorter says executive search firm Spencer Stuart. According to a recent survey the firm conducted of CMOs at 100 of the most advertised U.S. brands, the median tenure has dipped to its lowest level ever, reaching 25.5 months—just over two years—compared to 30 months just a year earlier.

What happened? There are several factors, the firm suggests. With budgets tightening, the need to focus on and improve ROI has become paramount. In addition, given an increase in digital media and an explosion in available data, many companies have begun to merge the digital and marketing roles, amping up the CMO’s responsibilities and changing the skillset needed to perform them.

“Marketing really began to change with the growth of digital and the amount of data that’s available to really assess how things are working, as well as the proliferation of so many different sites and platforms,” notes Larry Fisher, CEO of Rise Interactive, a digital media agency focused on what it calls “interactive investment management.” That’s made it imperative, he says, that CMOs work in a “real-time environment where you’re making on-the-fly decisions about whether something is working or needs adjustment.” It’s also meant that CMOs, who traditionally came to their jobs with more of a qualitative than a quantitative orientation, need to be better able to use data to determine the success of their efforts and defend the company’s investment in their work.


“If the CFO is asking every five minutes why a campaign isn’t working, the CMO is going to revert back to doing things the way they always did them.”


At the same time, Fisher notes, there’s a critical need for management to “set the right goals and expectations” couched in the right time frame—which probably exceeds the current median tenure—especially in an age where everything is “changing so fast.” As Fisher explains, “a CMO needs to be balancing current-year goals with building a team—and a product—for the future. If the CMO is being judged every three months, if the CFO is asking every five minutes why a campaign isn’t working, then the CMO is going to be less willing to take a risk. Instead, they’ll revert back to doing things the way they always did them, making decisions in the short term that might not be right for the long term.” Patience, he suggests, is key, not only to the CMO’s success but to breaking what could be seen as the current “two-year curse.”

A NEW SKILLSET FOR A NEW AGE

That companies are beginning to understand the need for a new skillset—and the need for a new timeframe—notes Fisher, was evident in a series of CMO job descriptions that Rise recently reviewed. According to these job descriptions, today’s CMO needs not only to know how to create the marketing “big idea” and the content to support it but also to understand and perform in such areas as data strategy, customer experience and insights, and a host of new expectations tied to privacy and consent. In addition, he points out, they have to manage company growth strategies. For B2C brands, this means owning the customer relationship and loyalty. For B2B, this looks like a deep understanding of how to build and execute account-based strategies. And, since their remit includes the sales funnel, digital technology, MarTech and ad tech, “they have to make sure they have the right tools in place” to do all of this—and are monitoring not only the changes, but the changing expectations.

The impact of these evolving expectations was borne out by a survey conducted earlier this year by Deloitte, the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, and the American Marketing Association which found that:

  • 72% of surveyed marketers reported an increase in the importance of their role, fueled heavily by “customer demands for digital experiences.”
  • While marketers remained focused on building brand value, attention paid to improving marketing ROI had increased by more than 100%.
  • Nearly half of responding marketers said that they were able to demonstrate the impact of marketing spend on their business thanks to the availability of quantitative tools. This was 39.8% higher than just a year earlier.

“'They have to make sure they have the right tools in place'—and are monitoring not only the changes, but the changing expectations.”


MINDSET AS MUCH AS SKILLSET

In many ways, it seems this is as much about mindset as it is about a particular skillset. As Fisher puts it, “it takes someone who is willing to take some risks and get out of their comfort zone.” To do that, he notes, a CMO “needs to be constantly pushing ideas and asking for budget and showing the ‘art of the possible,’”—and they need to be empowered to do this by a much more patient management. This, Fisher says, will “create an environment that is conducive to keeping up with the rate of change that’s happening now.”

Getting out of the comfort zone means:

Keeping up with constant change: “I have a series of things I’m always watching,” says Fisher. “This includes competitors and brands I admire. You can follow them on LinkedIn. You can follow them on TikTok. You can introduce yourself to the speakers at conferences you attend. Building these relationships is a path toward creating awareness. It allows you to pick up nuggets of information you can bring back to the team and say, ‘Have you considered this? What do you think?’ It’s creating an environment where you’re asking your team to put lots of things in front of you—and not worry about getting a ‘no!’”

Knowing where you can have an influence on societal issues: The Deloitte/Fuqua/AMA study showed that more than a quarter of respondents believe it is appropriate for brands to take a stand on politically charged issues—an increase of nearly 50% since a year earlier. “You don’t need to be on the bleeding edge” of that change, notes Fisher. “One of the things we’re seeing today is a trend in which CMOs are asking potential agency partners what they’re doing from a DE&I perspective. It’s really about understanding what you stand for and what’s important for you and your organization and what you can control.” Underscoring that evolving commitment, the Deloitte/Fuqua/AMA study found that two-thirds of marketers had already “made efforts to reduce divisive language to encourage national unity.”

Focusing on customer experience: “The start-to-finish customer strategy” belongs more clearly than ever within the CMO’s purview, says Fisher. The Deloitte/Fuqua/AMA study speaks to that as well, noting that more than one-third of respondents rated customer experience as “their customers’ key priority.” This ranges, Fisher says, from “how do we find our customers and what’s our audience strategy to what type of content are we providing them with once we’ve found them. And once we’ve given them the content and they decide to interact, where do we bring them? And then, once they are at your side, how do you encourage them to give you permission to continue to market to them?” This, he notes, is increasingly important given the current focus on privacy in which “it’s going to be harder and harder to market to people who haven’t raised their hand and given you permission.”

Understanding what data is available and how to mine it: “You need to understand how to make decisions about where to push your marketing program with all the data that’s available,” Fisher says. But doing this also means having a keen understanding of how the business runs. “In many cases,” Fisher says, “we’ve been putting an emphasis on hiring people who are good at math. We’re looking at the types of people you might not find at some traditional agencies: accountants, traders, hedge fund managers, investment bankers, technologists—people with an analytical skillset who can look at the data, whether it’s marketing data or company financial data, in a way that evokes new and different conversations.” Many of these conversations will be with CFOs and CEOs, enhancing the value they can find in marketing efforts, enhancing the respect they have for the marketing function, and, not incidentally, reducing the inevitability of the two-year curse.

Casting a wider net in the search for marketing talent: In addition to considering marketers with nontraditional backgrounds, Fisher notes that the pandemic, by making remote work acceptable, has removed geographic barriers as well, allowing companies to tap into the “global talent network, looking for the best person at the best price, regardless of where they work.”

HOW TO SHIFT THINKING

The key to making all of this work, to providing CMOs with the new skillset—and mindset—is finding a way, as Fisher puts it, “to bridge the gap between the creative CMO and the digital-data-driven CMO,” taking marketing leaders “along the digital marketing curve” and getting brands “to the next level, reaching and exceeding their goals.” It also means, of course, greater patience on the part of management, fueled by an understanding that achieving a brand’s long-term goals might mean taking actions now that won’t pay off right away.

Toward those ends, the rest of this series will bring that approach to life by focusing on four key strategies that CMOs need to adopt to remain competitive—and to break the two-year curse: fueling their brand engines, future-proofing their audience strategies, acting on real-time opportunities, and, perhaps most critically, proving their impact—all supported by a number of real-life case studies.

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