Why CMO Tenure Is Falling And What To Do About It

BERA CMO, Scott Turner is a methodical optimist who believes that great marketing is a potent combination of persuasion and pivot tables.

In his article, “CEOs, Executive Recruiters And The Problem Of CMO Tenure,” Forbes writer Seth Matlin covered data from SpencerStuart that confirms what we intuitively know—that the tenure of CMOs is low and is trending downward. Either America, the cradle of modern marketing, is suddenly full of untalented CMOs who are embodying the Peter Principle, or something bigger is indeed at play.

I hypothesize two reasons for this.

1. Unrealistic expectations for CMOs.

2. High-stakes brand bets built on ambiguous data.

The first reason sets the CMO up for failure. The second is sometimes used to confirm that the CMO’s instincts are wrong and that “we need to go in a new direction.”

High Expectations Of Marketing Outcomes

CMOs are subject to wildly divergent expectations from multiple stakeholders ranging from the CEO (“make us the most admired brand in our industry”), head of sales (“build my pipeline”), CFO (“deliver an ROI on marketing spend”) and frankly, everyone else (“where’s our SuperBowl commercial?”).

CMO Identity Crisis

Simply managing the original five Ps of marketing (product, promotion, price, place and people) would already require an extraordinary leader. But in recent years, CMOs have also been expected to master newer responsibilities that further stretch the capabilities of mortal marketers. Consider the following new roles of the CMO.

• CMO as forensic accountant: Where are our leads coming from? How are they progressing through the pipeline? And how can we lower our costs? Did consumers buy our candy bar after seeing our billboards, TV spots or grocery store endcaps? The focus here is on lead attribution, customer acquisition costs (CAC), marketing efficiency and cost per lead (CPL).

• CMO as storyteller: Wine is made of grapes. Software is made of code. CMOs now need to connect with customers by assuring them that their brand not only does what it promises but also aligns with their customers’ values. Beyond the product, marketers add important narratives such as how the company cares for its employees, vendors, customers and even the planet.

• CMO as data scientist: This CMO job is aimed at teasing out the metrics that matter—the hidden insights that move the needle in that haystack of big data and satisfy efforts to become data-driven.

• CMO as chief growth officer: CEOs and boards of directors sometimes want marketing teams to accelerate sales cycle times and to own the pre-sales awareness, engagement and education of prospects so that, in theory, sales teams can become order takers.

• CMO as chief technical officer (CTO) or chief innovation officer: Crucial to performance marketing are efforts to build the optimal marketing software (martech) mix that automates customer acquisition, engagement, tracking and loyalty.

• CMO as chief customer officer: This marketing job does not end with customer acquisition. CMOs are also expected to lead relationship marketing efforts to ensure loyalty, renewal and expansion.

So that’s it. For a CMO to survive in their role, they simply need to become a data-driven storyteller who builds a hyper-efficient and effective tech stack that enables pipeline growth and creates customer connections that ensure ongoing loyalty. Easy, right?

Beyond their expansive responsibilities, CMOs are also under duress for another reason—namely, that they routinely make big brand budget decisions despite massive uncertainty.

The Elephant In The Room: Brand Versus Performance Marketing

Digital marketing impressions, clicks, opens, downloads, trials, orders and renewals are super trackable and quantifiable. Consequently, spending on digital and performance marketing increased, and career-savvy marketers took heed of the advice of their mentors to “stay close to the revenue.”

Meanwhile, brand marketing is surviving without always thriving. Brand-oriented advertising and creative might win awards, but CMOs can’t always satisfactorily tie their brand investment (a topic I wrote about previously) to business outcomes such as increased revenue or enterprise value.

Spending on brand can reach billions of dollars annually. But brand has been difficult to measure—an anachronism in the internet era. Consider a $200 million brand campaign aimed at gaining new beer customers among men aged 25 to 35 based on the brand’s perceived “fun.” This sounds reasonable, but is this the right age cohort? Is “fun” the best aspect of your brand, or is it “authenticity”? Is acquiring new customers even the best course of action, or would you be spending your money better by aiming at more loyalty or higher share of wallet from your existing customers? Marketing and brand leaders may be set up to fail without the proper forward-looking data to guide them.

A Two-Part Solution To The Problem Of Falling CMO Tenure

My solution requires old-fashioned prioritization combined with a commitment to brand data.

1. Get Real

If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. From the large list of expectations and responsibilities I called out above, CEOs and their boards should stack rank their priorities. Then hire and budget accordingly. This requires tough decisions, including the discipline to say “no”—or at the very least, “not now.”

2. Get Real Data

Performance and digital marketers have thousands of martech software choices for making data-driven decisions. By contrast, CMOs who need to place important brand bets often have limited scope, limited-time-frame market research, high-priced consultants, and agencies to guide them. For this reason, CMOs’ brand teams may consider new categories of brand-oriented martech, sometimes called predictive brand tech or performance brand building. (Full disclosure: My company offers a solution like this.) This technology captures an ongoing data stream of customer and non-customer brand sentiment by segment to identify hidden insights and opportunities and recommend optimal brand positioning.

Even without adopting new software, CMOs can still thrive by making a DIY commitment to ongoing brand data. Their teams should collect weekly segmented customer and non-customer data on their brand, their competitors’ brands and high-performing non-industry brands that are setting new standards for achieving brand love. This is essential for measuring their brands’ health in the context of competition and rising customer expectations across business cycles, social movements, pandemics, geopolitical conflicts and other surprises. Doing so can help CMOs and brand teams achieve ongoing, real-world, actionable insights that reduce the risks of placing big brand bets. This goes a long way toward satisfying the CEOs, CFOs, heads of sales and boards, which ultimately determine CMO tenure.


Forbes Communications Council is an invitation-only community for executives in successful public relations, media strategy, creative and advertising agencies. Do I qualify?


Pemasaran