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 / Winter 2004 / Issue 37(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Fall and Rise of the CMO

Chief marketing officers come in three new-and-improved flavors, exclusive Harvard research shows.

Illustration by Bob Goldstrom
As large corporations redouble their efforts to find more profitable paths to growth, they’re looking for strategic and operational leadership from the marketing organization more than ever before. The result is the increasing prominence of a senior executive whose title didn’t even exist 10 years ago: the chief marketing officer, or CMO.

To a degree, the emergence of the CMO is simply a matter of nomenclature. There are chief talent officers, chief technology officers, chief investment officers, and chief financial officers. Why not simply rename the senior vice president of marketing the CMO?

CEOs of Fortune 500 firms who have appointed CMOs say it is because they need someone who does more than what is expected of a conventional leader of marketing. As the need for marketing expertise becomes more pressing, CEOs have recruited CMOs as direct reports to bolster their marketing bench strength. Particularly when reputation risk is a major concern, the CEO needs a single person to whom he or she can turn in the event the corporate brand (or a prominent brand owned by the company) encounters a crisis.

Creative marketing leadership is also sought to differentiate and strengthen brands through integrated communications strategies. The goal is for companies to better understand customers’ buying preferences and link that knowledge to the delivery of products and services that are more relevant to customer needs, and to develop closer channel relationships. But the demands on marketing don’t stop there.

Companies are looking to chief marketing officers to contain costs in media expenditures, marketing services procurement, and market research. Now that firms have reengineered manufacturing and supply chain processes to cut costs, there is a natural desire to make marketing more effective, too.

But the track record of CMOs, so far, is mixed. According to a recent study by the global executive recruiting firm Spencer Stuart, the average tenure for CMOs is only 23 months. At one extreme, the Starbucks Corporation staffed and restaffed its head of marketing five times in seven years; Coca-Cola Company changed its CMO four times in six years; and Kinko’s (now FedEx Kinko’s) staffed the position three times in five years.

Other companies, however, have benefited from stability in the chief marketing officer position. Abby Kohnstamm has been IBM’s senior vice president of marketing for more than five years and has successfully overhauled the company’s entire marketing strategy. Ann Glover, CMO of the Hartford Financial Services Group, has had the responsibility for branding and advertising for more than three years. She has brought much-needed consistency to the brand, logo presentation, and internal communication of marketing messages across the corporation.

So why do some CMOs achieve success and longevity while others fail and leave? Is it simply an issue of individual marketing skills, or are some firms destined to continually churn their marketing leaders?

In 2004, we surveyed 120 companies and conducted 18 in-depth interviews with CMOs and/or CEOs from global companies in order to gain a deeper understanding of what drives success and failure among chief marketers. Our conversations revealed that personality, empowerment, expectations, skills, and a company’s needs together play a critical role in a chief marketing officer’s success.

High Churn
CMOs, our research shows, experience high and rapid turnover for five reasons: They tend to be outgoing personalities who like to grab the limelight, even though this can rub the CEO the wrong way; too often these high-powered, talented individuals feel constrained by a lack of authority; expectations for the CMO’s impact on business performance are too high; they’re experts in marketing but don’t have multifunctional management depth; and the need for a CMO is not clearly defined.

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  1. Andrew Ehrenberg, “Marketing: Are You Really a Realist?” s+b, Second Quarter 2002; Click here.
  2. Leslie H. Moeller, Sharat K. Mathur, and Randall Rothenberg, “The Better Half: The Artful Science of ROI Marketing,” s+b, Spring 2003; Click here.
  3. Randall Rothenberg, “John Quelch: The Thought Leader Interview,” s+b, Third Quarter 2000; Click here.
  4. Steve Silver, “Bring on the Super-CMO,” s+b, Summer 2003; Click here.
  5. “When Art Meets Science: The Challenge of ROI Marketing,” s+b/Knowledge@Wharton white paper, Dec. 17, 2003; Click here.
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