The rising power of the CMO: is marketing is the C-suite’s golden child?

Today’s CMO has more responsibility and influence now than ever before, and are becoming more attractive to companies looking for creative CEOs who “get” the brand. Act-ON's CMO Michelle Huff writes.

The corporate world is going through an interesting change and Steve Easterbrook, McDonald’s CEO, could be seen as the poster child of this transition. Prior to assuming the role of McDonald’s leading man, Easterbrook was the fast food giant’s Chief Brand Officer – a position previously thought to be too narrowly-defined and lacking the transferrable skills needed for a more senior position.

However, CMOs are increasingly being elevated to leading positions in companies: large multinational corporations from Royal Dutch Shell to Campbell’s Soup, all have top roles filled by marketers in the last couple of years, illustrating more than ever before how the responsibility of a CMO has dramatically shifted.

While before, CMOs might have been boxed into marketing-specific tasks such as increasing brand awareness and demand generation, as well as marketing products, now CMOs are likely to be involved in other parts of a business as well, including sales, customer success, business development, corporate strategy and IT.

Gartner’s research director, Kirsten Newbold-Knipp captures it well in a blog post: “In the B2C world, marketing’s responsibility has grown from brand awareness, to market share, to end-to-end customer experience in short order. While this same trend is playing out in B2B, it’s even more poignant a shift. The customer buying journey for B2B brands is growing increasingly marketing heavy with buyers doing more research and getting further down their decision path before they engage with sales. That’s manifested itself in a shift of responsibility with CMOs who once owned a simple lead count now measured on pipeline or even shared revenue targets.”

This means that operational efficiency is no longer the key metric when evaluating a company’s success – instead, this has now shifted to understanding and engaging the customer effectively. According our own CEO here at Act-On, Andy MacMillan, this means that “companies were run more from the back of the house by Excel spreadsheet jockeys, than from the front by the creative Powerpoint types.”

This is where data has completely changed the game – changing customer behaviour means that CMOs must better understand the customer lifecycle in order to effectively use data to enhance the bottom line and drive measurable results. As most companies’ strategic imperative is now focused on increasing brand awareness, generating leads and impacting the bottom line, as well as building loyalty in customers, CMOs now look more attractive than ever before as not only do they “get” the brand, but they tend to have useful communication skills.

While before, CEOs may have operated on top floors in silos and whom shareholders and employees may have only heard from occasionally, the rapidly changing and increasingly transparent world of communications – including the advent of social media – means that walls are being broken down and quite literally in some cases! All of this signals a transition from the model of the ‘isolated CEO’ to the ‘highly visible CEO’ who is expected to participate in live Q&A sessions with employees or the public and to have public profiles on social media channels.

It’s no wonder then that more CMOs see themselves as future CEOs in this changing corporate environment – a 2014 Forrester survey quite aptly titled ‘The Evolved CMO’ found that 40% of B2B marketers and 41 per cent of B2C marketers saw themselves as working towards CEO roles. However, a similar survey in 2011 showed quite the opposite: most marketing executives wanted to become consultants or move to bigger companies, and that was the extent of their ambitions.

This isn’t to say that CMOs will walk into top positions in companies – CMOs still have to convince corporate boards of their revenue-focused mindset, financial acumen, cross-organisational skills and management experience in order to be considered for the coveted role of CEO. However, while most CMOs may not have managed sales, they are more now than ever aligned to driving a revenue target for the business, have overseen large teams, large tech stacks, and big budgets, and have balanced the art and science of data-driven marketing in a time when data is absolutely pivotal to a company.

Michelle Huff is the chief marketing officer of Act-On.

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for from 2016 to 2018.

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