My musings on brands

Marketing’s crisis at the top

The news is horrendous and there is a crisis blooming. “Marketing” is suffering from a serious problem at the board level and CMOs are dropping like hats. The crisis is impacting senior, mid-level and junior marketers (read Uber’s global marketing positions cull). But there is something seriously wrong here, and which has a potential to corrode marketing’s image and importance.

In July 2019, McDonald’s CMO Silvia Lagnado announced her decision to leave after successfully turning around the brand’s fortunes and creating a strong visual identity, global positioning and partnerships with Disney. The men identified to replace her didn’t take the role of CMOs but became Senior Vice Presidents.

On the other end of the spectrum is Uber. After laying off close to a third of its marketing team across the world, it hired a former Google exec to become its VP of Global Product & Business Marketing. Just before the mass marketing layoffs, Uber decided to eliminate both the CCO and CMO positions. Just before that, and a story that got lesser media attention, Lyft parted ways with its CMO and the duties were divided up between the VPs of marketing operations and brand.

“Marketing’s image crisis has been created by the confusion around what marketing should be responsible for”

In the last 5 years (to create a definitive timeframe), we have seen the birth of too many senior marketing titles and a clear blurring of the roles and responsibilities of a senior marketer. There are 2 factors that lead to senior marketing roles getting eliminated:

  • When there is high levels of ambiguity about the role of a senior marketer, which clearly impacts performance

  • When the organisation is in a crisis and marketing is identified as the culprit (and because the role is undefined it is always at danger of getting eliminated)

What have we seen taking front seats in the media visibility game? We have now come across Chief Marketing Officers, Chief Brand Officers, Chief Growth Officers, Chief Commercial Officers, Chief Happiness Officers and Chief Culture Officers to name a few.

In this informative article in the Harvard Business Review, authors Kimberly A. Whitler and Neil Morgan outline that the first step to make the CMO role impactful (and to make a CMO last) is to “define the role”. In their extensive research, (un)surprisingly they found there is no clear definition that exists.

The role of the CMO at the board level has become so funnily contentious that we now have arguments around issues like ‘whether CMOs should be in charge of customer experience etc.’. The clear, in-the-face answer to such petty questions should be that a CMO has a mandate / responsibility for the whole marketing strategy of an organisation. As far as our memory stretches, creating an excellent customer experience falls under the purview of marketing (under whom you can have brand…).

In addition to this we now have this annoying debate about how big corporates should function like agile startups in each and every function. This is another meaningless point that ratchets up pressure on CMO roles. In this article, Casey Winters argues that big brand CMOs find it hard to adjust in the scrappy world of startups, which leads to very high churn rates.

But that is only one side of the story. Uber and Lyft are by no means “scrappy” startups. After Jonathan Mildenhall left Airbnb in October 2018, the global CMO role continues to be vacant (unless it has been so stealthily filled that no one has gotten wind of it). Between Uber, Lyft and Airbnb we have the classic conundrum of hiring CMOs and then “not telling them what they should be doing” or “telling them what they shouldn’t be doing”.

There have been odes of research and writing on how the CMO role has become complex and continues to evolve quicker (than it was earlier). But this doesn’t change the fundamental need — there is a need to define the role in a sharper and more focused manner.

There are some important principles, which need to be followed when defining this set of roles and responsibilities:

  1. Regardless of how much evolving the role is, there has to be a predefined framework within which the CMO will operate

  2. There is more harm done than any kind of advantage by shrinking the aspects of marketing under a CMOs purview — smaller is the size of the marketing function led by a CMO lesser is the need for the role

  3. A glut of “Chiefs” is a sure shot recipe for disaster — there is definitely no need for a CMO, CBO and CGO (or combinations) as marketing, brand and growth are closely intertwined

  4. A board level marketing role has to have strategy as its primary underpinning — For a CMO to be effective, he or she should have designing and implementing the marketing strategy of an organisation as a core responsibility

  5. For a CMO role to have impact, marketing needs to be a priority for the Board (and there should be a formal Board) — there is no strong reason to have a CMO when an organisation is not ready for a dedicated marketing function with strategic remit

  6. Hiring a CMO should never be an afterthought or a reactive decision, especially if it is the first CMO — creating the role requires in-depth thinking on why it is required and how will it fit in the organisational structure

  7. This is true for any CXO level and equally true for the CMO — the role and the person appointed to conduct the role should be assigned with a set of responsibilities no one else has been assigned to or expected to carry out

  8. Hiding in the points above is the need for marketing to have a strong role in organisational strategy — if this need has gradually grown and is now a critical one, your organisation needs a CMO (but only if someone else is not doing the job already)

  9. CMOs should raise the visibility, voice, impact and importance of marketing at a Board level — if these are not the core requirements of the role, you don’t really need a CMO

  10. Evolution is natural for a CMO to contend with, but the evolution should be confined to the strategic remits of marketing

At the end of the day, the focus needs to move away from the tenure of a CMO (currently estimated to be an average of 43–44 months) to the need. The tenure is a reflection of the strength and clarity of that need.

If you think CMO is a fancy title, then don’t hire one. If you also think that a CMOs role can be done effectively by splitting into different individuals, then again don’t hire one. A CMO is not for you if marketing is considered a support function (which is a very strange place to be in) and he or she is again not for you if your organisation cannot clearly define marketing and the role it should play.