Why So Many CMOs Are Leaving Major Brands for Ad-Tech Companies

Here's what's spurring the switch

Here's why more CMOs are leaving big brands, and where they are going. Getty Images
Headshot of Katie Richards

Earlier this year former Mondelez International CMO Dana Anderson made a major announcement that many weren’t expecting. In April, the marketing chief for the consumer packaged good giant announced she would be stepping down from her role. Her next gig? CTO—chief transformation officer—for strategic advisory firm MediaLink.

What may have felt like a surprising move at the time has now become a bit of a common occurrence in the marketing world.

In late October, former McDonald’s CMO Deborah Wahl resurfaced after leaving her marketing role at the brand in April. Wahl didn’t end up at another household name, but instead joined media software company Mediaocean as a member of the company’s board of directors. A few weeks following Wahl’s move, former Tory Burch CMO Susan Vobejda announced she would also be moving away from the brand side. Vobejda joined The Trade Desk as the company’s new chief marketing officer.

“There’s always that ebb and flow and we always see these very funny patterns happen,” Liz Miller, svp, CMO Council, said. “One minute brands are super sexy and everyone wants to go work at a brand, and then the brands themselves, like the CEOs of brands, are saying we need to get people who are ‘blank’ savvy. Tech savvy, TV savvy, content savvy.”

CMOs give ad-tech companies a competitive edge

This could very well be one of those times when ad-tech companies are on the hunt for some brand-savvy marketing leaders to swoop in and build out these respective brands. Wahl, for example, was a major win for Mediaocean. The company noted that it would look to her to help expand Mediaocean’s connections within the brand marketing community.

The same was true for Vobejda with The Trade Desk.

“[Vobejda’s] digital and media expertise coupled with her perspective as an experienced CMO will help us better reach the brands and advertisers who can leverage our technology platform to achieve their marketing goals,” The Trade Desk CEO and co-founder, Jeff Green, said at the time.

Some experts believe the reason more CMOs are looking to try out tech is because there’s more opportunity to be on the cutting-edge of change.

“The biggest reason I see this movement is because brands and corporations, specifically large corporations, tend to move slower on decisions and processes,” Elina Vanyukhina, division director at The Creative Group, said.

Others believe the increasing number of mar tech and ad-tech companies entering the market plays a part in the movement. “You have a market that is booming and could probably be in a place, financially, to make that leap look really attractive. But you also have a market and an industry that is almost universal. I can’t think recently of an ad-tech company that I’ve spoken with that says, ‘Oh, we do an excellent job with CPG, or we are targeting big brands,'” Miller said. “They are all looking at the same market.”

So what might make an ad-tech company stand out in the overcrowded market? A CMO with expertise and understanding of how brand marketers, or potential clients, think and what they are looking for in a tech partner.

What’s in it for the CMO? 

For the CMOs making the moves, a lot of the itch to try ad-tech comes from learning just how complicated and confusing all these new technology and digital processes can be. There’s a bit of a sense that they can take their experience from these brands and help other brand marketers who are in the same position, feeling confused and overwhelmed by all of this digital transformation.

“I found that the more that I understood the technologies available to me, to reach customers and engage them, and the closer I was to my agency and the technologies they were leveraging, the more effective my marketing strategies became,” Vobejda said. “Being at The Trade Desk is an opportunity to help bring more awareness to programmatic and what it can do, and help marketers understand how to leverage it in their business and for brand growth.”

Wahl felt similarly when she decided to join Mediaocean’s board after logging just over three years at the helm of the McDonald’s marketing department in the U.S.

“I really think what [Mediaocean is] providing is critical for all of us in the industry going forward,” Wahl said. One of Wahl’s biggest goals in joining Mediaocean is to help CMOs understand why it’s so important to understand new technology and trends. She really wants to push CMOs to think like a CTO.

Added Miller: “Why wouldn’t a CMO want to go [into ad tech?] It’s an incredibly exciting time in the space. You get to innovate and make some of the things that are changing the market. What would you rather do? Be the innovator on the bleeding edge or the person who has to try and influence it all?”

@ktjrichards katie.richards@adweek.com Katie Richards is a staff writer for Adweek.