Want To Choose The Right CMO? Three Formulas Worth A Look

CEOs and boards tend to have only a vague understanding of the role. Some help in thinking through what you actually need.

Like professional athletes at the mercy of team owners always looking for the next superstar, chief marketing officers appear to have the shortest tenure of any member of the C-suite. The median stint in the role was 28 months in 2018, down from 31 months a year earlier, according to Spencer Stuart.

Despite the revolving door, I don’t believe that most CMOs are underperforming. Rather, CEOs and boards tend to have only a vague understanding of the role, or of what their next CMO should bring to the table. Busy CEOs often rely on three shorthand archetypes to inform the process of selecting the best person for a specific company. Here’s the problem: The essential skill sets for each of the archetypes can’t be found in a single individual, and CEOs often don’t know which key attributes they should be looking for.

The first archetype is the classic creative iconoclast, the visionary who personally comes up with the next big idea. (Think Don Draper in Mad Men.) This role traces its roots to the early days of mass advertising and companies’ assumption that true marketing leadership would come from a creative or ad agency.

The second archetype is the professional general manager of marketing. While a number of companies have taken this route, Procter & Gamble gets most of the credit (or blame) for “professionalizing” the marketer’s role. CEOs trust these hires to manage the marketing department as a business function akin to finance or human resources.

The most recent archetype to emerge is the digital wizard, with a background in digital marketing or even the data and analytics side of the craft. For CEOs, many of whom aren’t versed in digital, this choice offers reassurance that they can catch up to the digital revolution. Known for being laser-focused on results, digital wizards may dismiss traditional brand marketing in favor of an entirely data-driven approach.

Not surprisingly, any pure archetype will likely fail in today’s marketing battles. CEOs can expect their CMO to emphasize creativity and innovation, to run marketing like a well-oiled machine, or to transform the department into a digital, agile system. But they should not expect all three. Instead, CEOs should consider which combination of strengths would best serve their company:

Creative iconoclast + general manager = a marketing department that’s cool, edgy and well run. 

It may struggle, though, to reach digital-native consumers. A company should hire a CMO with this combination of skills if it needs to put the brand in front of customers often, and when the brand itself is a key asset.

Creative iconoclast + digital wizard = a hip and digitally savvy marketing function. 

On the downside, the company might overpay for marketing or for customers, because digital economics often make marketing indicators look better than they actually are. Hire this CMO for a disruptive marketing strategy, similar to the approach taken by digitally native insurgents.

General manager + digital wizard = a well-run, digital organization, but one that may become “brand vulnerable.”

Brand love and loyalty go hand in hand, so competitors with a more resonant brand may be able to take this company’s customers over the long run. Hire this CMO when your business depends on transactional marketing leading to onetime or infrequent purchases.

CMOs have a tough enough task without pressure to be what they are not. Their odds of success will increase when CEOs and boards carefully consider which flesh-and-blood individual makes the best fit with their company.