Why CMOs get sidelined by their own employers

Forbes Insights and an academic researcher explore the barriers to transformation

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 9.07.39 AM.pngThe reporting structure on Bruce Rogers’ slide should be pretty familiar. It shows a rectangle with “chief marketing officer” on top, with a series of lines running down from it that go into boxes marked “product director,” “advertising director” and so on.

One slide later, though, the chief insights officer at Forbes Media has an entirely different kind of org chart: one in which the CMO is at the centre of a wheel in which other functions — customer service, strategy and content creation, for example — look like spokes. According to Rogers, too few marketing leaders have reached this point.

“Look at the CFO. If they are not your best friend, it may not be a job in which you’re in for much longer,” Rogers said during a recent webinar titled “The Transformative CMO,” which looked at how the role is (or should be) evolving. “This is more matrixed with the CMO in the middle rather than a set of basic reports coming in.”

This notion isn’t just based on Rogers’ opinion. His division within the media company, Forbes Insights, has conducted several studies that suggest marketing needs to be more involved in major shifts that happen in an organization. In one study of large U.S. businesses, for example, 93% of executives said their firm is at some phase of changing its business model, but only 50% suggest their firm is well-versed in making big strategic changes.

“They’re not exactly sure how to change and what it means once they get there. This is where the CMO can step in and lead this process,” Rogers said.

Forbes Insights also discovered a few other statistics that suggested CMOs needed to step up their game:

  • 47% believe marketing money is wasted
  • Only 51% said their firms could monetize what they do sufficiently.
  • Only 56% said they were making the right media buys.

“There’s a big gap here that needs to be bridged,” Rogers said. “The changes happening around digital transformation are forcing transformation throughout the supply chain.”

So where to begin? It’s not just a case of CMOs being more aggressive in helping drive the CEO’s agenda, said Kimberly Whitler, assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. A lot depends on whether CMOs are working in an environment that’s prepared to support their agenda.

“There are still a lot of CEOs and a lot of firms, from a historical standpoint, that believe that marketing is nothing more than promotion-generators,” she said, recalling a CMO she knew who had to “throttle back” on a strategy and ultimately leave a job over such roadblocks. “When that’s the case, it’s very hard for the CMO, no matter how competent, to come in and transform the role before they transform the company.”

Whitler also frequently blogs about CMOs on Forbes.com, and recently interviewed an associate fellow at Oxford University who suggested marketers don’t belong on boards of directors because “marketing follows strategy,” among other concerns. When the post was added to a CMO group on LinkedIn, there were a slew of concerned and outraged comments. “He has no idea what ‘marketing’ really is,” one said.

Whitler believes one way to remedy that problem is for CMOs and their teams to do a little bit of internal marketing about the kind of data in their arsenal. “This is the only function on bringing external information and helping the firm adapt,” she pointed out. “Finance, HR, operations – most of them are inwardly-focused.”

The trick is ensuring the data marketing brings forward links directly to business outcomes, Rogers said, adding Forbes Insights did a study that showed 67% of high-performing CMOs use key performance indicators directly related to the CEO’s objectives to measure their own results.

“Marketing is one of those capabilities in the organization that really can’t exist on its own,” he said.

On the other hand, marketing is a unique function in other ways that may not be understood, Whitler said. “When I talk to MBA students, I always ask them, if you take marketing out of the firm, what happens?” she said. “The most visible change will be a change in growth.”


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