These Are the 4 Possible Career Paths for Every CMO Today
By Gene Cornfield, Accenture Interactive, and Mark Bonchek
The role of the chief marketing officer has always included customer engagement. But as engagement evolves from advertising to experience, the role of the CMO must also evolve.
Simultaneously, there are new faces in the boardroom—with titles like chief customer officer, chief digital officer, chief experience officer and chief growth officer—whose responsibilities overlap with what’s thought of as marketing.
So where does this leave the CMO?
CMOs are at a crossroads. They have the opportunity to step up and help drive overall corporate transformation. Or they can maintain the status quo and see their overall influence decline.
Today’s consumers and business buyers have more choices and higher expectations than ever before. They want companies to be more human, to remember who they are, to know what they like and to use that understanding wisely.
For companies, this requires an unprecedented level of integration and coordination across every business unit, from sales and marketing to customer service, as well as across physical and digital channels. It also poses a deep challenge to companies organized by product and function rather than by a customer-centric model like experience and value. It’s no surprise then that many CEOs are adding new roles in the C-suite in order to deliver integrated experiences that transcend organizational boundaries and ownership.
In this path, CMOs take on a new title and position, with responsibility for the end-to-end customer experience and other growth-oriented functions. Such a move is recognition that the person in charge of marketing has the experience and skills to drive customer-focused growth.
At Dick’s Sporting Goods, Lauren Hobart was promoted from CMO to president, while at KFC, CMO Kevin Hochman became president and chief concept officer. At Dick’s Sporting Goods, chairman and CEO Edward Stack attributed Hobart’s promotion to the importance of driving “omnichannel consumer engagement” across the enterprise.
Elisa Steele at Jive Software, Jay Farner at QuickenLoans and Susan Lintonsmith at Quiznos have even gone from CMO to CEO. They’ve broken from the traditional paths to the top spot, which typically run through finance, sales and operations.
This path expands the scope of the CMO’s oversight. The title is the same, but the CMO is given responsibilities over other areas affecting the customer experience, such as ecommerce, product, customer service and digital transformation.
Alison Corcoran moved from being CMO of Staples to CMO of dental insurer DentaQuest, with responsibility not only for brand and customer engagement, but also for digital transformation and the overall direct-to-consumer business. According to CEO Steve Pollock, the expanded scope of Alison’s role was to provide “a holistic, integrated experience” to its 24 million customers. When he was at Airbnb, CMO Jonathan Mildenhall was driving the company’s evolution to an end-to-end travel brand by reinventing “experiential marketing.”
Here’s what happens when the CEO and CMO are not well aligned.
CMOs can find themselves on a downward path for a variety of reasons. Some research indicates that CEOs hold CMOs responsible for disruptive growth more than any other position in the C-suite. Yet many CMOs don’t feel they are positioned to disrupt the status quo or achieve aspirational growth.
Sometimes the CEO sets the growth agenda, but CMOs either aren’t interested or don’t have the skills to go on and reshape the customer experience and drive organizational change. Sometimes, it’s the opposite: The CMO is interested, but the CEO doesn’t see the CMO's role as being anything more than running campaigns and generating leads. That’s when the CEO brings in a new role over marketing.
For example, Coca-Cola—certainly regarded as one of the top marketers in the world—recently eliminated the role of the CMO and hired a chief growth officer. The previous CMO was known for his focus on campaigns and was thanked for “improving the productivity of marketing” and leading a “resurgence in the quality of advertising.” In contrast, the CEO described the leadership changes as necessary to “respond to the fast-changing needs” of customers, employees and partners and to “transform our business for the future.” Does this mean Coca-Cola no longer has someone with the prior CMO’s responsibilities? Of course they do; but that person’s title no longer starts with C.
CMOs move out of organizations for many different reasons. Sometimes they don’t fit with the direction the company is going, as was the case with Coca-Cola. Sometimes it’s because CEOs want their CMOs to drive growth and transform the experience, but don’t give them the mandate, resources or span of control to do so. Eventually, the CMO serves as a convenient scapegoat when the company doesn’t deliver on its growth commitments.
In those cases, CEOs are ahead of their CMOs. But more often we see CMOs who are ahead of their CEOs and boards. They want to drive growth around the customer experience, but can’t get their CEOs to recognize the need or—if they do see the need—commit the political or financial capital to back the CMO leading the transformation.
In the case of Coca-Cola, Jonathan Mildenhall was previously their SVP of marketing. He left in 2014 to pursue a transformation at Airbnb. Now Coca-Cola is replacing its CMO to bring what appears to be the kind of thinking that Mildenhall brought to Airbnb. We are left to wonder if Coca-Cola had moved Jonathan up or over sooner, perhaps he might not have felt the need to move out.
We expect the next few years will continue to see a lot of shuffling in the C-suite as companies turn their attention to growth, recognize the insufficiency of incrementalism and place the customer experience at the center of their transformation.
Marketing is about much more than running campaigns and managing brand identity, but the rest of the organization doesn’t know this yet, including most CEOs. CMOs need to define a broader vision for marketing as the orchestrator of the customer experience and prove that marketing is not a cost center but a revenue generator.
This requires a new set of skills. CMOs often find it challenging to get their peers, boards and sometimes even their own teams to understand the importance of customer experience and then to change how they think about it. It’s even harder to get people to commit resources, change incentives and make the hard decisions to become truly customer-centric.
However, it is worth the effort. The most customer-centric companies are the ones outperforming their competitors and raising the bar on customer expectations, whether digital natives like Amazon and Netflix or established leaders like Sephora and Starbucks. But it takes more than simply saying the words “customer-centric.” You have to shift the notion of customer-centricity from getting customers to do what fulfills the company’s purpose, to getting the company to do what fulfills the customer’s purpose.
For those CMOs who aspire to move up and over rather than down or out, the job needs to be a catalyst for change, an engine for growth and an orchestrator of experience. It will require strong alignment with key stakeholders, new models of leadership and a new playbook for success. Given the changes underway, every CMO should be asking, “Which path am I on?”
Adapted from the article originally published in HBR.