The Future CMO … why marketing leaders need to be the future shapers, business innovators and growth drivers

September 30, 2021

CMOs should make the best CEOs.

Marketers have a deep understanding of markets, how the future is emerging, what the customers of today and tomorrow are demanding, how competitors are evolving, the best new ideas around the world, and therefore what it will take to drive future innovation and growth. Yet only 11% of CEOs come from a marketing-related background, far behind those who were CFOs or COOs. Finance and operations matter, but they don’t move the organisation forwards.

Too many marketers get caught up in the tactics – perfecting the creative execution of advertising, debating the intricacies of price changes, ensuring that their search engine positioning is optimised, a slave to quarterly revenues, or maybe even the sales team. The driver for ever great data analytics, the use of precision marketing tools, the desire for real time engagement, has dragged – or enticed – marketing leaders into this short-term. Yes, it matters, but it’s not everything.

Marketers should be stepping up to drive strategy, innovation, and change across the organisation. If not them, then who?

One of the most profound moments of my own marketing career was when working with Coca Cola, their CMO had a last-minute idea to rebrand his global marketing plan as the global growth plan. Suddenly everyone in the executive team wanted to see it, read it, be part of it. Suddenly it became a conversation not about reducing the marketing budget, but how to find more budget to fund additional growth. Marketers are the growth drivers, and actually create over 3x more economic value than any other function in the business (based on a research project I did with Philip Kotler’s input and a team of economists). And marketers have some indispensable tools – brands, customers, innovation – to achieve this growth.

The problem is that too many marketers live in an echo chamber.

Some examples. Too many marketers talk about marketing as “their industry”. It’s not. They are instead professionals contributing towards their business in its own industry – banking, retail or whatever. This tribal motivation can bond us as a professional community, and focus us on functional deliverables, but it diverts us from the real contribution marketers can make to organisations, and their close allegiance and integration with cross-functional colleagues. The exception are the leaders and their teams who have repositioned themselves more holistically as Customer Director, Chief Growth Officer, and the like.

Secondly. Too many marketers have a far too cosy relationship with their creative agencies. It’s like they outsource their creativity to the agency, who still largely take a myopic view (of course, there are many types of agencies, but the ad agencies still tend to dominate relationships despite the diminishing share of spend on traditional media). Ad agencies themselves describe their world as “adland”, a mythical place of long lunches and artistic platitudes (witness the headlines in Campaign). This symbiotic relationship, indulgence in each other, is what holds too many marketers and their businesses back. Creative agencies should be stepping up to contribute more, to make sense of a changing world, to challenge and stretch our collective imaginations.

Too many marketers don’t step up to think strategically, to become the future shapers, the innovation drivers, the change makers. Too many marketers are still obsessed with communications, at the expense of other aspects of marketing – not just product and service development, but channels and pricing can have a huge impact too, perhaps even greater than the most beautifully crafted ad campaign.

Instead marketers should be the visionaries behind how the future can be shaped, how markets will evolve, anticipating and driving change rather than just responding. They should be searching the world for new growth opportunities, for new consumer insights, for more innovative ideas. They should be the architects of new business models, and indeed, new market models. New ways for markets to work, new ways to unlock brands as the most valuable assets, new ways to achieve success. They should be the driving force of business futures, the catalysts and sage to the business leader, the instigator and enabler of change.

So here’s my manifesto for marketers:

Growth Drivers

  • Marketers exist to drive the growth of a business. Yet few marketers have the confidence, or maybe capability, to define and drive the holistic innovation and growth strategies of their organisations
  • The pandemic drove the biggest shift in consumer behaviour in our lifetime, yet few marketers really transformed their marketing in response, fewer still led a company-wide response to support or seize the opportunities it opened up.

Change Makers

  • Change is driven by markets, yet marketers are rarely the change drivers, reimagining corporate strategies, business models and strategic priorities.
  • Customer-centricity is obvious. Yet marketers persist in obsessing about defining purpose, brands, activities and results around old product-centric thinking.

Business Innovators

  • Innovation is probably the most powerful word in business, yet few marketers seek to define and lead the innovation agenda and programs across organisations. Not just new products, business-wide innovation.
  • Most companies seek to be entrepreneurial. Their biggest disruption comes from entrepreneurs. Most entrepreneurs are marketers. Few marketers are entrepreneurial.

Value Creators

  • Marketing creates three times more economic value than their operational colleagues, yet few marketers can make this case, or lead the company’s dialogue with investors. Oh, and growth needs to be profitable and sustainble too.
  • Customers and brands are probably an organisation’s most valuable financial assets, yet few seek to articulate their value on balance sheets, or to fully exploit their latent potential.

Of course this is a development challenge too. I spend much of my time working on leadership development, and particularly on the T-Shaped development of functional experts as they step to become business leaders. At that point, typically when they enter the C-suite, they shift from the vertical (the focused, functional expert who has all the answers), to the horizontal (the open-mind business leader who asks all the questions). This is is a tough transition for many leaders to make, and is more about awareness and confidence as about capability or skill, but when they can let go of their vertical past, they can thrive.

So who are some of the world’s more enlightened marketers, the CMOs who are customer champions but also business innovators and growth drivers? Here are some examples:

Stephanie Buscemi, Salesforce

Salesforce’s CMO talks about the strategic challenge of building value in organisations, about brand purpose and promise. That purpose was is interesting. It gets thrown around with abandon, usually result in some mash-up of keywords which are neither understood or inspiring. Instead need real purpose, how the business will contribute towards a better world (in whatever way, not only around social-type issues), and then translating this into brands with real purpose, and made relevant for each person.

Chris Capossela, Microsoft

Microsoft’s CMO is “taking big swings: in the quest for success and discovering how failure is “the great instigator for growth.” What impresses me about working with Microsoft, one of my own biggest clients, is how they have real conscience, imagination and entrepreneurship. Their purpose is to enable customers to do more, not just sell products. This is where sales and marketing focus their effort (“your potential, our passion”) in tangible ways. They also truly embrace entrepreneurship – from design and lean thinking, to pizza teams and hackathons, debates on ethics and customers in their boardroom.

Carolyn Everson, Facebook

Facebook’s vice president of global marketing solutions leads the company’s relationships with top marketers and agencies. What’s interesting here is that Facebook is probably more of a media company than those associated with its agencies. In  some ways its roles are therefore reversed compared to the norm. But the real power of a tech platform like Facebook, and Instagram and WhatsApp too, lies in its data, its networks, and power as platforms. Look, for example, at the rise of Instagram Shops, the development for social interaction, to a dynamic, realtime, platform for commerce.

Julia Goldin, Lego

Lego’s CMO discusses how tech presents massive opportunity for innovation and Lego’s approach to digital transformation. Lego is a great example of digital transformation because it is classically not a tech company, and still has a heart in physical play. The ability to recognise the brand asset as far more than a product umbrella, enables it to develop in terms of new markets – from clothing to crafting, movies and theme parks – not as adjacencies but as one story. Brands anchored around ideas (led godt, meaning creative play) rather than products or categories, can achieve so much more.

Marc Pritchard, P&G

P&G’s Chief Brand Officer explores a future of  technology that is allowing brands to find new ways to reach the consumer. Pritchard recognises that with a portfolio like P&G’s he has the power and reach to do so much more in the world. His focus on sustainability, driving the entire organisation to transform its practices, but equally enabling customers to apply their own impact too, is worth copying. He achieves this as an organisational leader. People look to him for strategic direction, for business priorities, and for innovation. He also backs this up, by showing it matters, and the impact it makes. The focus is on profitable growth not just revenue or share (anyone can create share without profit), and linking it to DCFs and economic value creation. Ultimately he is the guy investors look to, and in the analyst reports, to understand the organisation’s future potential.

Phil Schiller, Apple

Apple’s outgoing SVP talks about the company’s role in empowering developers to create the future of technology. Schiller is stepping down after being the right hand man in a $2 trillion journey of growth. What is remarkable about Apple’s incredible performance of the last 10 years, is that it has grown to almost 10x the size of Steve Jobs’ era without a real focus on radical product innovation (yes they are great, but from a product perspective its been evolution than revolution). It’s more about how they evolved, particularly as an ecosystem – think App Store, or iTunes – and as a portfolio. Some innovations under Schiller, enabled by his phenomenal brand halo, include the AirPods, with a business model creating the equivalent of a $250 billion business.  Indeed as a brand, Apple has continued to shine, reaching across the world, and to all of our lives.

More than anything, marketing and marketers, have the potential to be so much more. The next 10 years will see more change than the last 250 years. Right now, as we slowly emerge from pandemic, every market is being shaken up, the rules rewritten, a new generation of brands emerging.

Now is the time to seize the seismic changes in consumer behaviour and aspiration, economic shifts and technological revolution. Now is the time to be the future shapers, business innovators and growth drivers. To be the energising, mobilising, progressive leaders of business. To be the change makers.


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