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A Fetching New Title for the CMO

A Fetching New Title for the CMO

Steve Heisler

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No matter how many times a company tries to adopt a new name for its CMO—whether it’s “chief growth officer,” “chief customer officer” or others—the role remains plagued by the need to justify itself

The shifting narrative around the title of chief marketing officer has the melodrama of a soap opera. The title was embraced by countless organizations in the mid-1990s through the mid-2010s before being eliminated by some—only to be revived in recent years. Two Forbes headlines suggest as much: The magazine declared in 2012 that “The CMO is Dead,” but in 2016 the publication announced that “The CMO is Dead, Long Live the CMO.”

The CMO will-they, won’t-they plotline is perhaps best told through the Coca-Cola saga. In 2017, Coca-Cola removed its CMO and renamed the position “chief growth officer” as an attempt to spur the titular growth. But a mere two years later, the company reversed course, realizing it really did need someone with a strong marketing pedigree. The Wall Street Journal reported that the new CMO, Manolo Arroyo, held more experience as a marketer than outgoing CGO Francisco Crespo, and that Coke CEO James Quigley said it was marketing, not growth, that would best contribute to the company achieving its goals.

It remains to be seen how much this move by Coca-Cola will inspire others to follow suit, but the company boasts a long history of trendsetting in the marketing world, dating back to its introduction of the CMO title itself in 1993. While an analysis by Marketing News staff found about two-thirds of the top 50 companies on the Fortune 500 employ top marketers with the CMO title, some top firms today have hired marketing professionals with titles like “chief brand officer” or “chief value officer.” Some have done away with the title entirely, distributing CMO duties among other C-suite executives. And most of these changes were implemented in 2017 or later, after Coke’s announcement.

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Given the recent flux of the CMO title, it’s worth identifying why companies might tweak it to begin with. For starters, changing the name sends a strong message to internal stakeholders to brace for an overhaul of marketing strategy. Second, it’s also an opportunity for a marketing leader to hold an exclusive title, which can be wielded as a recruitment tool. And lastly, a new spin on the CMO title is part and parcel for the profession itself: Marketers are masters of the rebrand.

Ultimately, the changing titles speak to a symptom of the larger issue: Companies have yet to truly grasp what it is the CMO is supposed to do, and they’re changing the name in the hopes of achieving that clarity. It’s part of the CMO’s never-ending quest to define and justify their job to other top executives. In the August 2018 edition of The CMO Survey, produced in partnership with the AMA, Duke University and Deloitte, it was reported that 59.9% of marketers “feel pressure from [their] CEO or board to prove the value of marketing.” Despite the role existing in the C-suite for 17 years, a comfortable majority of CMOs are still worried about demonstrating their worth.

The CMO’s instability is also evident in its notoriously short average tenure when compared to other members of the C-suite. Research from Korn Ferry on members of the C-suite, released in early 2020, found CEOs averaged 6.9 years with their companies, CFOs at 4.7 years and CMOs averaged 3.5 years. These tenures are shorter across the board than in previous years, but the CMO position has always occupied the bottom slot.

Greg Welch, executive recruiter at Spencer Stuart, says the rapidly shifting nature of modern marketing lends itself to shorter tenures for CMOs than their peers, particularly when CEOs feel it’s time for a shake-up. “The fact of the matter is that most executives in the marketing world have a playbook,” he says. “And many are agile and continue to come up with great new ideas, but I think there’s a reason that we’ve seen [relatively short CMO tenures]. The industry has said, ‘After that period of time, we’re likely ready for the next page, the next perspective, and that may come from another person.’ … The CMO has fallen victim to that.”

The CMO title was conceived to internally signal that CEOs were ready to elevate their marketing leaders. As opposed to using terms such as “vice president” and “director,” the word “chief” signified that marketing had secured a seat at the C-suite table and further clarified that this person would report directly to the CEO.

The origins of both the CEO and CFO titles similarly concern interorganizational communication, but the roles themselves were necessary to keep up with the times. Strategy+Business claims that the term “chief executive officer” began appearing in 1917, right about when modern corporate structure was first developed and being implemented. In this case, labeling someone a CEO was necessary to dispel any ambiguity as to who was in charge. CFOs came into being in the 1970s, when the Securities and Exchange Commission and Federal Accounting Standards Board began changing the ways in which corporations reported their finances. CFOs were added to monitor regulations and ensure compliance.

The title of CMO has existed for a shorter period, yet the term “marketing” has shifted in meaning multiple times since the inception of the CMO—unlike, say, “finance.” Despite advancements in technology and analytics, CFOs follow a largely similar process in balancing and closing the books as they always have, while marketers are tasked with reinventing the wheel every few years. They are no longer simply responsible for monitoring and developing a brand’s voice.

“When new words are invented, or others are used [differently] than they were used in the past, it’s because new meaning is being sought. But I would argue to create the meaning, then name it later.”

Rebecca Messina, former Uber CMO

“Chief customer officer, people officer, growth officer … those all are people trying to find the right term and the right name for what was, what has evolved and, in some ways, what might be,” says Brett Billick, CMO of Self Financial, Inc. “Because the role [of the CMO today] involves more functions, capabilities, knowledge and insight, organizations are making sure [the name] reflects something that doesn’t have an older, legacy connotation.”

New titles assist CEOs in clarifying to their employees that marketers are cleared to guide functions they may not have interacted with much in the past, such as sales or corporate affairs. In March 2018, Hyatt promoted its EVP and global head of loyalty and new business programs, Mark Vondrasek, to the position of “chief commercial officer,” replacing the CMO. This title clarified that he would oversee and represent an array of functions, including sales, revenue management, analytics and even some aspects of IT.

“To our owners and to our stakeholders, we wanted to signal that we saw the importance of aligning functions that deliver top-line revenue and guest experience initiatives, and that we could function more effectively by doing that,” Vondrasek says. “Internally, it really wasn’t a hard sell to get people to appreciate having an IT leader in the same room when we’re talking about a strategy … by the time you’re engaging with [the rest of IT], you’re bringing a concept that is fairly well-baked.” This saves time in having to communicate second-hand information and challenges to the rest of Hyatt’s leaders to think cross-functionally—all from changing a title.

Some critics, such as Uber’s former CMO Rebecca Messina, argue that adding words to the title or replacing the word “marketer” isn’t the solution to changing with the times. In fact, many would suggest that some of the work Vondrasek listed is part of the marketing profession already. “The idea that you can switch the name from ‘marketing’ to ‘growth’ because, I guess, marketing didn’t mean growth before seems crazy to me,” Messina says. “Fire me as a marketer if I’m not helping the company grow. I think the problem [that needs solved] is, ‘What is the value of marketing?’ Every company’s going to be in a different place in the journey of solving for it, but I don’t know that changing the name is solving the problem.”

Part of the challenge in defining the value of marketing is that CEOs have a hard time narrowing the list of skill sets they are looking for in a prospective CMO. “Most of the phone calls I get from CEOs today [go like this]: ‘I’ve got a problem with my current CMO,’” Welch says. “‘We’re not modern enough. We’re not engaging with consumers. I don’t feel like we’re delivering the right messages in the right way. I don’t think we’re spending enough of our total spend on digital. I don’t think we’re as quantitative and performance-oriented as I want us to be. Find me somebody who can help get us there.’”

The bullseye for what makes someone a successful marketing hire these days, Welch says, boils down to the plumber versus poet continuum. Consider the CFO as the traditional plumber; their work is easily measured and relatively streamlined. Marketers who resemble the advertising executives on “Mad Men”—the creative brainstormers—fell far on the poet end of the spectrum for their work in the ephemera; brand discussions and consumer perceptions are more challenging to definitively quantify.

As new marketing metrics are developed and ingrained into the day-to-day goings-on of the modern marketer, the job slides further from the poet end of the scale and toward the center of the continuum. Replacing the word “marketing” in the CMO title better projects where along the plumber-poet spectrum the ideal candidate would fall. A chief people officer, for example, more closely resembles a poet than a plumber, while chief commercial officer is the other way around.

In addition to clarifying where on the plumber-poet spectrum a marketing candidate should land for an organization, an alternative title to CMO can attract candidates looking for something unique to add to their résumé. “The easiest thing I could give people to motivate them to take a job is to give them a very impressive title—it costs me nothing,” says Kim Whitler, assistant professor of business administration at the University of Virginia.

A distinct name also gives companies an opportunity to tailor the title to the prospect, which may better suit the candidate’s résumé and career development. “At one level, the role of the title is aspirational to the person that you’re going to offer the position to, and if the title isn’t sexy then it can make the job less interesting,” Whitler says.

But as attractive as a new title may be, the competing argument is that companies are more likely to boost retention by sticking with the tried-and-true CMO name. Writing for The Drum, Michael Karg explains that titles that are too specific can lead to CMOs feeling as though their potential is being squandered. “As marketing has grown to cover other disciplines, many companies have narrowed CMOs’ responsibilities to just these areas,” Karg writes. “This is another reason why ambitious CMOs—who realize the full potential for the discipline—jump ship. Changing the name of the role is a red herring … Almost all of the suggestions I’ve heard are narrower and less holistic than the all-encompassing CMO title. Indeed, they’re more a reflection of current realities than the ideal state or aspirations for the role.”

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Compelling titles stand out on a résumé and an organizational chart, but dazzle when printed on a business card—particularly when the title has been conceived by the marketers themselves, flexing the muscles they’ve spent their career toning.

Take the title of chief growth officer: Forrester recently speculated that, “The rise of the CGO stands as a rebuke to ineffectual CMOs.” The title itself also projects excitement and the fact that a marketer is staying ahead of the curve in their rapidly changing profession.

But Whitler argues that a name change can often be a simple rebrand of the same product, much like when Coca-Cola changed the label of New Coke in 1992 to read, “Coke II.” “A title change does not equal a job responsibilities change,” she says. “That is the core mistake that everybody is making: They assume the two are related.”

Yet the trend persists, and Welch speculates that the CEO may be driving this fad. “I think it’s been kind of hip over the last year to say, ‘You know, we’ve gone through three CMOs, we’re going to change things up a bit, and really what I want is a growth officer or a customer officer,’” he says.

Changing titles for the sake of being viewed as a disruptor carries with it some negative side effects. Sarah Hofstetter, board member at Campbell Soup Co. and special adviser to the Board of Directors at Profitero, recently wrote a piece for Forbes in which she argued that because the requirements and expectations for a chief growth officer or chief value officer are seen as different than those of a CMO, companies run the risk of hiring someone not as fluent in shifting marketing strategy along with the industry. “Even if it’s just semantics, [changing the title] may lead to removing the marketing skill set from the C-suite at a time when businesses can least afford it,” she writes.

While it’s true that new titles for roles can attract new talent or signal internally that process is about to change, there’s a third variable at play: confusion about what marketing in 2020 should look like. Name changes are a Band-Aid that delay such a conversation, Messina argues, and companies are going about making that decision backwards.

“When new words are invented, or others are used [differently] than they were used in the past, it’s because new meaning is being sought,” Messina says. “One way to get new meaning is to give it a new name. But I would argue to create the meaning, then name it later.”

Call CMOs what you will, but a marketer by any other name sells just as sweet. “I don’t care what your title is,” Welch says. “If you and your team aren’t spending your time thinking about things that will help you sell more boxes or drive more renewals and revenue, then you’re probably wasting your time.”

Photos by Jamie Ramsay.

Steve Heisler is staff writer at the American Marketing Association. His work can be found in Rolling Stone, GQ, The A.V. Club and Chicago Sun-Times. He may be reached at sheisler@ama.org.