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Why CMOs Never Last

In 2012 a leading retailer began looking for a new chief marketing officer. The job description made the opening sound exciting: The new CMO would play a big, important role, leading the company’s efforts to boost revenues and profits. It seemed like the kind of opportunity any would-be CMO might desire.

Sure enough, the company landed a sea­soned, talented executive from the consumer-­packaged-goods industry, who came on board determined to make his mark.

But a year later the new CMO was feeling deeply frustrated. Given the job description, his experience, and his conversations with the recruiter and the chain’s CEO, he’d assumed he’d have the authority to create a strategy for driving growth. To his surprise, his role was limited mostly to marketing communications, including advertising and social media. He had no responsibility for (and limited influence over) product launches, pricing, and store openings. The problem, he told us, wasn’t that his skills prevented him from meeting the company’s goals; it was that the job was so poorly designed—and there was such a mismatch between the CMO’s authority and the CEO’s expectations—that it would be difficult for anyone to succeed in it. Soon after he spoke with us, the CMO left the company.

In our research into what makes CMOs effective, we’ve heard stories like this more often than we should. To us, they’re evidence that something is going very wrong in the relationship between CEOs and CMOs. A 2012 global survey by the Fournaise Marketing Group highlights the tensions between them: The results reveal that 80% of CEOs don’t trust or are unimpressed with their CMOs. (In comparison, just 10% of the same CEOs feel that way about their CFOs and CIOs.) CMOs also sense a serious problem. In our own surveys, 74% of them say they believe their jobs don’t allow them to maximize their impact on the business.

This troubled relationship helps explain why CMOs have the highest turnover in the C-suite. According to an analysis by Korn Ferry, they stay in office 4.1 years on average, while CEOs average 8 years; CFOs, 5.1 years; CHROs, 5 years; and CIOs, 4.3 years. Our own research indicates that churn rates may be even worse: We found that 57% of CMOs have been in their position three years or less. 

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But unlike CFOs, CHROs, and CIOs, whose roles are primarily inward facing, CMOs have a direct effect on the way customers engage with the firm. When new CMOs enter companies, they often change the strategic direction—which means creating new positioning, product packaging, and ad campaigns, usually at considerable expense. If job dissatisfaction or underperformance leads to a revolving door in the CMO’s office, companies can experience internal disruptions, not to mention major recruiting and severance costs.

When consumer insights drive product design, the CMO needs a strategic focus.

We believe that a great deal of CMO turnover stems from poor job design. Any company can make a bad hire, but when responsibilities, expectations, and performance measures are not aligned and realistic, it sets a CMO up to fail. In this article we’ll outline the four steps CEOs should take to end this dysfunctional pattern. We’ll also describe how to match the right person to the CMO job and how CEOs, executive recruiters, and CMO candidates can all work together to maximize the odds of CMO success.

Step 1: Define the Role

Let’s start with a simple question: What does a CMO actually do? Surprisingly, there is no clear, widely accepted answer.

In our research we’ve interviewed more than 300 executive recruiters, CEOs, and CMOs; conducted multiple CMO surveys; performed an analysis of 170 CMO job descriptions at large firms; and reviewed over 500 LinkedIn profiles of CMOs. We’ve discovered extreme variations in the responsibilities CMOs are given and in the skills, training, and experience of the people who occupy the role. (Note that we use the term “CMO” generically to refer to a company’s top marketing executive; at some firms the job may have a different title, such as executive vice president of marketing.)

Most CMOs, we’ve observed, have a few areas of core responsibility. More than 90% are responsible for marketing strategy and implementation, and more than 80% control brand strategy and customer metrics. But beyond that, the range of duties—from pricing to sales management, public relations to e‑commerce, product development to distribution—is mind-boggling.

Of course, not all CMO positions should be the same. Companies have different needs, challenges, and goals, and the CMO’s role has to reflect those realities. Before even considering candidates for the job, a CEO must decide which kind of CMO would be best for the company. In our research we’ve identified three distinct types. 

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Some CMOs focus on strategy. They take the lead on up-front decisions about the firm’s positioning and then translate those decisions into the design of new products, services, and experiences. Often they manage the customer insight and analytics functions. In essence, strategy-focused CMOs spearhead a company’s innovation efforts. Accounting for 31% of CMOs in our research, they’re common in multibrand firms and in some B2B service firms where a centralized marketing group helps set firm-level strategy.

Most CMOs focus on commercialization. They have a downstream role and work primarily on using marketing communications to sell the products, services, and experiences that others design. Typically, their responsibilities include overseeing traditional and digital efforts to create revenue-growing relationships with consumers. Nearly half of CMOs (46%) have this kind of role. Common in firms where a function other than marketing is central to success, commercializers play a supporting role to the function that drives innovation (such as engineers in tech firms).

The third kind of CMO handles both strategy and commercialization responsibilities in an enterprise-wide role focused on the design and implementation of strategy. Significantly, such CMOs have P&L responsibility and the broadest range of duties, including innovation, sales, distribution, and pricing. In our research 23% of CMOs have an enterprise-wide role. They tend to be common in single-brand firms and some consumer-packaged-goods companies. Because of the scope of their responsibilities and the organization-wide nature of their impact, marketers with this kind of experience have historically been seen as strong general managers and are often tapped for CEO roles at other firms.

How can CEOs determine which type of CMO is appropriate for their firms? They should take into account the following three external factors:

1. The degree to which…

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