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Marketing Management: The evolving strategic role of the CMO

I’ve headed up a number of marketing teams in my time. Recently I’ve been thinking about what it takes to be a CMO. The answer, I realise, is so much more than Head of Marketing or even Marketing Director.

When I started working, the most senior people in most businesses were directors Now we’ve gone beyond that and we’ve adopted the C-suite. But whilst Chief Marketing Officer has become ubiquitous, it’s actually a relatively new job role.

In fact, it’s not that long ago that the world’s major companies didn’t have a CMO. Sure they had a head of marketing or senior marketing manager of some capacity, however, these didn’t step up the ladder to the c-suite. That’s because marketing has historically been seen in a less strategic light than many other types of jobs within a business.

I’ve tried to find out who the first CMO was, but to no avail. If you know please leave a comment. What can’t be doubted, is the CMO role grew with the rise of the internet. I think this is largely because prior to the internet it was really hard for marketers to point at their contribution and definitely say: “this is because of what I did.”

Plenty of CMOs rose to prominence during the dotcom bubble. And whilst this should have seen marketers setting the foundations of what was to come unfortunately they became caught up in the dotcom bust. And their new found role as strategic level executives was firmly checked and tarnished during the episode.

I’ve worked in and with tech businesses, almost all of my working life and I know something for certain, developers have a finely attuned level of disdain for marketing professionals. In fact, they’d probably scoff at associating the word professional with marketing. As a marketer, I dread working with developers in their 40s who lived through that era and who often had to pick up the pieces.

But marketing is in a rapid state of flux and the skills required for the role have become more strategically focused than ever before. Many businesses are beginning to recognise this. They are also recognising the low barriers of entry – through technologies such as the internet, social media, email, search engines, smart phones – have made marketing incredibly competitive, requiring well developed strategic thinkers, as well as those with highly defined tactical abilities.

When I started working in marketing in the early 2000s, I largely worked in a direct mail and display advertising environment. Marketing has become so complex and so much more diverse since those days. Whether you’re thinking about content marketing, social media marketing, SEO, PPC, traditional offline display activity or pr, marketing has dramatically changed. One of the biggest change is the ability to track and report on what’s gone out and what’s come into the business.

HIstorically a big part of a marketers role was to control the perception of a business and get the phone ringing. But we can’t just rest on our laurels, we have to establish the message and the positioning of the business and ensure that the rest of the business lives up to it. Marketing has to be genuine.

As a marketer, we need to take a potential customer through every step of the buying journey, from awareness right the way through to advocacy. That’s a lot of different types of content and it all needs to be delivered through different channels using different tactics.

In my brand marketing days, I was regularly referred to as the “brand police”. And I think that’s how many people think of marketers. Or worse, people see marketers as delivering the kind of awareness activity that gets you in all the newspapers and trade journals but just burns budgets and doesn’t deliver leads. Most marketers who have been responsible for delivering marketing strategy, whether it’s digital marketing or offline marketing, can concede their failures on this front. I know I’ve got stories to tell about fantastic awareness campaigns that seem to add nothing to the bottom line.

Whilst the internet has brought many positive things to marketing, including reporting, the perception of marketing being a science has also created a lot of mediocrity in output. When we have to be able to demonstrate return on investment in order to get a decision about marketing it’s often difficult to suggest something that might not conform to the traditional confines of marketing norms.

This is also about sticking our heads above the parapet. We need to be able to confidently assert the benefits of the campaigns we’ve created and the results that have come in. Marketing is a strategic function in its own rights. It’s not sales support despite what many a sales person I’ve worked with has thought!

I can plan a marketing strategy, but then I know I’m not as commercially strategic as I should be. And this is what CEOs are looking for in their c-suite compadres. It’s so easy to work in your own silo and not understand how your function or role works with the others within a business.

When speaking with Marketing Week in 2012, Helen Kellie, the then CMO, BBC Worldwide said: “Becoming an active board member will almost mean letting go of your marketing. That is one of the hardest things to do because you spend the first 15 to 20 years of your career honing your marketing expertise.”

And we often think about marketing as a science but the thing about science is it’s all about looking at what’s happened in the past and making a prediction. But in marketing you not only have to look at the past, you also have to be able to look into the future. To review different possible futures. This is what SWOT analysis in its most basic sense is all about.

We’ve got to constantly work out how to delight our customers. If we don’t delight them if we do the same thing time and time again, they’ll ignore us. In the same way that a military tactician has to do the unexpected, so do we as marketers. Everything else is middle of the road. It will get us to a destination, but it will be slow going and will be the same path all the rest of the competition take. In a previous marketing role, I coined a phrase for this and it was taken up as the company’s strapline. It was Think Brilliant.

I don’t think we can say we’ve got to the point where marketing development has plateaued. I remember working in marketing when people weren’t really bothered about success metrics. They believed marketing was intangible. A necessary evil. But in this world business execs can see the results there and then. This puts a great strain on a marketer to deliver.

This is why I believe marketers need to get better at pushing back. They need to get better at thinking strategically. At thinking differently. If they don’t then marketing could become hugely discredited, both as a function and as a career. And I say that as a marketer who thinks there are perhaps a few too many marketers in the game! If we don’t start to come up with new and more strategic, innovative marketing, then marketing will start to seem too expensive to bother with. And I see this happening already!

But not only do we need to be able to demonstrate marketing’s value, we also need to be able to step out of our silo and start influencing the way that other departments within a business operate and really integrate a customer and marketing centric approach to everything they’re doing.

Believe me, this isn’t always easy. It can sometimes seem easier to sit back and let everyone else get on with what they’re doing. But ultimately the other people in the business deliver the things marketers promise a business will deliver. Just as conversion rate optimisation is an essential part of a marketers duties, so two is optimising the customer experience throughout the business’s entire process.

Marketers need to be looking at creating change and opportunities in every part of the business. I like to start looking at the alignment of the company’s culture with the offering. This is a great way to start and can have a huge impact not only on the direction of the brand but the buy in your get from the team.

Along with Sales and Product teams, marketing can clearly see the ever shifting expectations of customers and can help shape the business to deal with that change when it comes through. And we have to be able to strategically influence other departments with the insights that have been garnered. After all. These have been paid for by the business – they should be used by the whole business and not just marketing.

This all means building bridges between the silos within a business. We’re communicators and we need to think how we can utilise the communication skills we’ve honed for our customers to communicate effectively with our colleagues.

I’m used to working in tech environments and Agile is all the rage. The twelve principles of Agile development are:

  • Customer satisfaction by early and continuous delivery of valuable software
  • Welcome changing requirements, even in late development
  • Working software is delivered frequently (weeks rather than months)
  • Close, daily cooperation between business people and developers
  • Projects are built around motivated individuals, who should be trusted
  • Face-to-face conversation is the best form of communication (co-location)
  • Working software is the primary measure of progress
  • Sustainable development, able to maintain a constant pace
  • Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design
  • Simplicity—the art of maximizing the amount of work not done—is essential
  • Best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams
  • Regularly, the team reflects on how to become more effective and adjusts accordingly

One of the things I’ve noticed about the Agile environment is how it allows the development department to become the leaders of cross-function communication. It occurs to me that Marketing should be working in exactly the same way. Without information from Sales, Commercial, Development, HR, Design etc etc etc we can’t do our job. We should be mining every part of the company for information. But whilst we’re doing this we should be communicating and helping departments within the business to communicate.

Collaborating to solve business problems can often generate some interesting perspectives and thinking differently is what marketing should be all about!

However, whereas those Agile development teams are focussed on the here and now and the not too distant, marketing can help instil a sense of collective purpose and understanding amongst every part of the business. In order to drive the kind of innovation required to be a truly different operation key members need to be inspired. Marketers are surely ideally placed to do this! I’ve worked with one CMO who was exceptional at this.

I must admit that something I’m trying to get better at is the detail of how things will get done after the marketing is done. I’ve been all too guilty of coming up with a new idea – perhaps it’s an SEO campaign or a content marketing strategy – and just cracking on without worrying about what would happen when the leads come in. We need to be more commercial if we’re going to be taken seriously by other people within a business.

I used to work with a marketing director who used to say “I’ll throw the ideas up in the air for other people to catch”. That was the way he operated. He threw those ideas in the air and quickly ran for cover, not stopping to think that he was the best placed to bring everyone together to make the ideas successful.

As marketers, we always need to get better at owning the outcomes, the systems and processes as well as the creative implementation. All too often we are guilty of coming up with ideas and then sitting back.

It’s no wonder that marketing is at the head of innovation within a business. Especially where that’s a technology business. I’ve been there in meetings where the product teams and the marketing teams have been at loggerhead because they both feel they have an understanding of the customer and their insights have somehow drawn them both to different conclusions. But whereas product teams tend to look at what the customers’ needs are, what will answer their requirements, a marketers job is to understand their emotional needs. Often to answer questions potential customers didn’t even know they wanted to ask.

Recently I thought about whether marketing is scientific. I have to conclude that if we always view marketing as science – and play by the rules of logic – we’ll always get mediocrity. Sure we’ll be able to predict our outputs KPIs, but there will never be that special ingredient or that magic moment that comes from out of the box, bonkers, lateral thinking and creativity.

And it’s also worth bearing in mind there is a principle of diminishing returns in marketing which many professionals don’t understand. The old adage “if you do what you’ve always done, you get what you’ve always got” doesn’t apply. If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get increasingly less of what you’ve always got as your technique becomes less effective.

We can’t let failure intimidate us into inaction. As marketers, we are going fail from time to time. And that’s ok. If we’re not failing, we’re not trying to innovate. We’re not trying to inspire. We’re not trying hard enough!

I’m constantly talking about velocity in marketing. Because all too many marketers create and then sit back. We can’t afford to do this. We’ve got to create and be creating whilst we’re delivering. Learning and adapting as we go along. In an always on internet marketing age, we’ve got to be frenetic.

We need to be constantly reevaluating the customer’s expected buying journey and cycle. Because it’s a moving feast and if we don’t supply supper, someone else will.

Forget the standard Four Ps and start concentrating your efforts on authentically educating your audience. Providing them with your unique perspective. Remember the knowledge you accumulate in your business is one of your core USPs.

The fantastic news for those of you interesting in or working in and with marketers is this: we’re well and truly in the age of the marketer. We are increasingly the strategic lead. We’re here to Inspire, Lead and Grow. Good luck!

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