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CMOs, Gain Power: Don't Let Chief Marketing Obstacles Stand in Your Way

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In this article, you'll learn...

  • Solutions to common challenges many CMOs face
  • Four ways CMOs can gain power in an organization
  • Why having a strong CMO is crucial for business

A version of this article originally was published at Texas Enterprise.

Marketing executives have an image problem, and it begins with the very definition of "CMO."

"There are three basic types of marketing people in an organization, and where the CMO fits in depends a lot on the viewpoint of the CEO," says Vijay Mahajan, a marketing professor at The University of Texas at Austin's McCombs School of Business. "You've got Marketing, Sales, and Communications. They are not all the same, obviously. How the CMO is positioned within the organization has a tremendous impact on his or her power to influence major decisions in the firm."

Mahajan defines CMO power as the ability to influence allocation of resources and other major strategic decisions within the top management team. "It isn't just about leadership style or personal strength," he says. "I've seen smart, dynamic executives falter in the CMO position when the job itself isn't structured for power."

Pete Hayes, principal and CMO at Chief Outsiders, agrees. "We see CMOs get stuck in a pure communications role versus one that is at the heart of the business," Hayes says. "If you are just talking about products that are developed, it is only a shiny veneer, and the rest of the organization won't value that."

Indeed, failure seems to infect the CMO suite, with the average tenure of chief marketing officers being less than two years, according to a much-discussed study by Spencer Stuart in 2004.

The Case for a Strong CMO

A powerful CMO makes for good business, according to Mahajan. "You must have a CMO on the top management team, because that is your consumer advocate, the one looking at the long-term health of the company," he says. Give the CMO power over strategic decisions, he argues, including a direct tie to revenue generation.

"The critical ongoing role of the CMO is to get actionable insight. Customer insight and competitive insight help formulate the entire strategy of the company. If Marketing isn't doing it, nobody is," says John Ellett, CEO of nFusion and a former senior marketing executive at Dell Inc., who has interviewed nearly 50 CMOs across the country.

How Does a CMO Gain Power?

First and foremost, CMOs should make their first 100 days count by building peer support, which creates power, stresses Ellett. "Focus first on building relationships, enrolling and engaging the leaders who do control business resources."

Otherwise, marketing executives often find they don't have the power to launch and follow through on the brand and business transformations they envision. "The savvy CMO must be clear about expectations, selling the changes that need to be made, and clarifying how he or she needs to be involved in strategic business decisions," says Ellett.

In his most recent study, Professor Mahajan and co-author Pravin Nath identify four other ways CMOs can gain power:

  1. Articulate a company vision in the face of industry instability. When business is a roller-coaster ride, top management teams better appreciate the market and consumer perspectives of the CMO. "Vision needs to be articulated," says Hayes. "What's going on in the business? What are your sales organizations like? How are you going to market? What is the gap in your expertise? A smart CMO can play in the middle of all that."
  2. Lead innovation. "The key to success, in many cases, is being able to position yourself as an agent of transformation," Ellett says. "We're talking about business, brand, or executional transformation, and if the CMO can align with the rest of the C-suite on the kind of change expected, that's a fundamental ingredient for success."
  3. Personify the voice of marketing experience in the C-suite. It's hard for CMOs to feel the love when others on the executive team think they could do it better. "In a top management team, it is rare to have other marketing people on the team," says Mahajan. "But you often have sales managers or product development people who do have marketing perspectives. So, they think, 'why should we listen to you?'"
  4. Take bottom-line responsibility for sales. Marketing has generally been granted long-term accountability rather than responsibility for quarterly results. "If the CMO also has responsibility for sales, he is both short and long term," says Mahajan. "So, he's not going to invent an opportunity that his team is not willing to chase." Mahajan found that CMOs with bottom-line sales responsibility wielded more power than pure marketing or communications executives.

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David Wenger is communications director of The University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business ;and author of the popular branding blog ID University. Find him on Twitter @DavidWenger.

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  • by Joselyn Torres Torres (Mr.) Wed Aug 10, 2011 via web

    The entire company must support and collaborate with Marketing Management. This is the reality of the New Economy. No question about it. This is the WHAT.
    The big up-to-now unanswered question is HOW. We have to work on it by ourselves. No question about it. As far as I am concerned I have started doing it. No plan B allowed.

  • by Dan Ziman Sun Aug 14, 2011 via web

    Nice article, David. It's good advice for many marketing roles in addition to CMO. One item though that's missing and feel the CMO of the future has to lead in: Social. Today, it might fit into the "Lead Innovation" category. Or, you could add a #5. The CMO is responsible for leading how the business should work with, praise, and embrace the social customer. Yes, the customer touches multiple departments, but marketing should lead how it be supported, reported, and integrated into tomorrow's go-to-market strategy.
    Over the next 12 to 24 months we will begin to see a huge separation between those CMOs that get social and thrive and those that won't.

  • by Marcus Starke Tue Aug 23, 2011 via web

    David, I particularly agree with the notion that the CMO has to be visionary and accountable to this quarter's revenue at the same time. It is this stretch that makes many CMO's uncomfortable and unsuccessful and it is for this reason that the average tenure is so low. One could argue that the CMO job is so much more complex and multi-facetted compared to other c-level roles, and you know what, I think it really is. But that is the beauty of marketing and what makes a good CMO stand out in a senior management team.
    Marcus Starke, SAP

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