CMO & CEO: Evolving Relationship In The New Age Of Marketing

CMO & CEO: Evolving Relationship In The New Age Of Marketing

The role of the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) continues to evolve as the marketing function becomes more strategic but also equally complex and challenging. There is no doubt that the emergence of the CMO role has given strategic marketing and branding functions high-level visibility in corporate boardrooms, but it is only the first of many steps. The second step involves implementation of strategic marketing initiatives at an organizational level, which requires boardroom cohesion and partnering with the CEO.

Because of the highly strategic nature of the relationship and its ability to significantly influence the current and future course of an organization, CEOs should work very closely with CMOs. In majority of cases, the CEO is already aware of a CMOs experience, personality, strengths and weaknesses, as they have been responsible for hiring them. Even when the CMO hire has been a collective board decision, the CEO need to work more closely with the CMO than anyone else in the board.

Partnerships between the CEO and the CMO need to be a highly productive, efficient and two ways nurturing and collaborating process. Even though the CMO represents the marketing and branding function on the board, the responsibilities go beyond simple representation. The CMO needs to have a broad understanding of the organization’s strategic direction, corporate vision, financial goals, shareholder expectations and impact of external factors (economic, political, social and regulatory).

If the above are the needs of the CMO from a collaborative relationship with the CEO, then the CEO’s duty is to provide guidance around these aspects. But, in turn, the CEO should expect the CMO to guide the strategic marketing and branding function in a manner that is aligned with the overall organizational vision and objectives. At a granular level, the CMO should keep the CEO in touch with the “customer and market pulse”, which is an amalgamation of trends, research and insights, customer experience, customer relationship management (CRM) programs etc.

These broad level collaborative aspects of the CEO and CMO relationships have finer aspects, which vary from organization to organization and is very much dependent on organizational structure, individual role of the CEO, individual role of the CMO, reporting lines between the CMO and the CEO and also by the defining characteristics of the industry and segment the organization is operating in.

Why hire a CMO?

A critical factor that influences the CMOs role within the organization and consequently the relationship with the CEO is the reason for hiring the CMO. CMOs can be hired for a variety of reasons, which include the life stage of the organization, current category and industry standings, state of play of the brand portfolio and the future strategic marketing and branding focus of the organization. To name a few, the following aspects can trigger CMO hire:

  • Elevate strategic marketing to the boardroom level
  • Need for a strategic marketing function with a long term vision and objectives
  • Separating marketing and branding functions from sales and distribution
  • Need for a stronger emphasis on branding and long-term strategic brand building
  • Centralizing and harmonizing marketing and branding activities
  • Need for stronger brand portfolio management (driven by mergers and acquisitions)
  • Marketing driven organizational growth plan to be implemented
  • Need for imbibing brand building thinking and processes in a previously product-driven marketing environment
  • Need for consolidation of a fragmented, misaligned and multi-layered marketing function

The difference in the need for hiring a CMO influences the relationship with the CEO to a large extent. For needs that involve setting up a marketing or branding function from scratch or changing the mind-set from product-driven marketing to brand-driven marketing, the CEO will have a stronger role in guiding the CMO through the organizational history, heritage, culture and people. It will also involve a more hands-on guidance of navigating the structure and different silos that always exist in corporations.

In comparison, when a CMO is hired to consolidate or centralize fragmented, multi-layered and inefficient marketing functions, the CEO is dependent more on the CMO to devise a strategy and way-forward. The induction to the organization structure, culture and people will remain standard but the CEOs expectations from the CMO will differ.

Looking at a third category of need wherein the CMO is brought in specifically to strengthen brand portfolio management, align marketing and branding functions to the portfolio and synergize the portfolio objectives with that of the organization’s, the relationship with the CEO will take a different form and shape.

Key thing to highlight are some standard or hygiene expectations from the CMO function that the board and the CEO have. These will include:

  • Increase and improve visibility of marketing as a strategic function at the board level
  • Align strategic marketing vision and goals with those of the organization’s
  • Closer cooperation with corporate finance departments (and the CFO, CRO etc.) so that marketing objectives make commercial sense
  • Make marketing objectives part of broader organizational objectives and link them to shareholder satisfaction
  • Imbibe the “customer and market pulse” as a compass for strategic goal-setting

Characteristics of successful CEO-CMO relationships

The collaborative relationships between CEOs and CMOs can take many forms. But the underlying characteristics of successful relationships are common across different forms of collaboration.

Mutual trust: Without strong levels of trust, the relationship cannot function, flourish and develop. This is true for any form of relationship, regardless of the need for hire, the category and market standing of the organization and the life stage of the organization.

The CEOs trust is characterised by the dependency on the CMO to make the organization more customer-centric. On the other hand, the CMOs trust is characterised by the dependency on the CEO to support and provide guidance on critical marketing plans and ensure that they are aligned with broad organizational goals.

Empowerment: Empowering each other is a key feature in any successful CEO-CMO partnership. Decision making at an organizational level and specifically for marketing requires transparency, cooperation and alignment with goals of each other. These can only be achieved if both of them are empowering the other in decision making. For example, an empowered CEO will ensure organizational goals and shareholder expectations are aligned with needs of key customer segments. On the other hand, an empowered CMO will have clear visibility of the medium-term and long-term impact of marketing strategies on organizational growth and its ability to meet shareholder expectations (in terms of revenues, profits and share value).

Empowerment as an aspect does have a bias towards the CEO, who is expected to have a dominant role as the overall guardian of strategy. On a day-to-day level, an empowered CEO will attend critical marketing meetings, will help shape the direction of the marketing function, will ensure collaboration between strategic functions like finance and operations and will provide working solutions to important marketing challenges.

Effective and efficient teamwork: Though both CEOs and CMOs are individuals (many organizations may have multiple CMOs) they still rely strongly on their respective teams to enable them to succeed. The CMO is an integral part of the CEO’s team along with the board and other CXO level individuals. For the CMO, the CEO represents the highest level of accountability in majority of cases, along with a strategic marketing team working alongside. For the relationship to be successful, the CEO and the CMO not only need to work effectively with each other but also with their broader teams. This is critical for holistic decision-making at the highest level.

Co-creating the future: Both the CEO and the CMO should have a strong involvement in charting the growth path of the organization and its strategic priorities. The CEO, by the nature of the role, will have a stronger role to play in this. Thus, to a larger extent, the onus lies on him to give the CMO a seat on this strategic table which will also help to fuel innovation as part of the business agenda.

Ensure action ability among conflicting priorities: The CEO and to a large extent, the CMO, have to ensure implementation and roll out of strategic initiatives in a sea of conflicting priorities. Both of them can help each other in a more smooth integration of initiatives by ensuring that organizational and marketing initiatives are not divergent but complement each other.

The expanding role of the CMO

Marketing is continuously evolving and is increasingly straddling adjacent domains, which were previously separate. The focus towards customer relationship management and the heavier role of information technology in today’s marketing functions requires every CMO to have a bit of the CIO in them. This is just one of the many demarcations that modern marketing is blurring.

Additionally, domains like content marketing, digital and social media advertising; online lead generation tools and the emergence of superior loyalty and referral programs are blurring the differences between marketing, advertising and sales. A modern day CMO is now expected to have solid understanding of digital media, social media tools and customer management programmes. In short, the skill sets and experience desirability of a CMO is broadening and becoming diverse.

The CEO has a very important role to play in the definition and assimilation of this expanding role of the CMO in the organization. The strategic priorities of the marketing function will differ in each organization. Defining and channelling these priorities is one of the primary responsibilities of the CEO. Being in charge of this task allows the CEO to clearly define the scope and focus of the CMO role. Writing the job description for the role is a challenging task, but important to get right so that the right individual with the right set of experience and skill sets comes on board. CEOs can look at the role with a variety of perceptions and associated approaches:

Multiple CMOs can be hired to focus on different areas of the marketing function: This is especially relevant if the organization has a presence in different product categories, each of which is a diversified and complex global business

The CMO role can be made very specific in terms of function focus: It is not uncommon to have a Chief Sales Officer (CSO), a Chief Customer Officer (CCO) and a CMO in the same organization

The CMO role can be made very specific in terms of capability focus: Again, it is not uncommon to have a Chief Digital Officer (CDO) and a CMO in the same organization

Partial to complete aggregation of functionalities is possible: The CMO can be entrusted with the responsibility of not only spearheading marketing, but also sales for example

Acting like the CEO is increasingly common and appreciated: A modern CMO is expected to have general management skills and business competencies that make him almost equivalent (if not all) to the CEO. In today’s times, a CEO will be very happy for a CMO to be able to take organizational level decisions in his absence or in collaboration with him

Conclusion: CMOs need to be able to lead organizations, and not only marketing

Like the CMO role, the relationship between a CEO and a CMO is also constantly evolving. The very need for a CMO to be more aligned with organizational objectives and for the CEO to have an understanding of the customers pulse is driving close collaboration and support between both roles. The criticality of this cross-functional responsibility is going to get bigger in the near future. As superior marketing and branding capabilities become the new differentiators for organizations, the role of the individual spearheading these functions will become increasingly important.

Elevating the disciplines of branding and marketing to the corporate board is now almost becoming a given for a CMO in terms of responsibility. As the focus and responsibilities broaden, the success of the role depends on the individual’s ability to work closely with the CEO, elevate marketing as an organizational growth enabler and to be able to understand and assimilate the importance of business decision-making. Today’s CMO is not only an experienced marketer – he is also a versatile team player, has the ability to build and strengthen relationships at the highest level, has a strong understanding of technology, can differentiate between traditional and non-traditional forms of marketing and last but not the least, has the ability to lead the whole organization. Ultimately, successful CMOs are potential CEO candidates.

It is true that in majority of instances, the CEO is tasked with the responsibility of finding and hiring a CMO. But post that stage, the reciprocity of the relationship has become increasingly important. The CEO is now reliant on the CMO to make the organization customer-centric and drive customer-driven change in the way the marketing function operates and contributes to the overall business.