CMOs now have to juggle many roles

In today’s fragmented world, the evolving role of the chief marketing officer is all about being brave


By Gemma Greaves, global managing director of The Marketing Society

If there’s one thing I know about chief marketing officers or CMOs, it is they have to wear a lot of different hats. Change-maker, brand guardian, the voice of the customer, communications specialist, data ninja, digital guru, growth driver, value creator, collaborator. The list goes on and on. And it’s getting longer.

We live in a frequently fragmented world, with Brexit threatening the future of the European Union and the looming US presidential elections, arguably one of the most important political events for decades. Then, for businesses, there’s also the digital transformation of everything with the proliferation of data this brings, along with the changing expectations of customers.

It’s about always putting the customer at the centre of everything

Against this context, now more than ever, juggling all these different roles, wearing these different hats, CMOs must also be brave. Being brave is not simply about holding your nerve when political events unravel shareholder confidence and squeeze customer spending. Being a bold marketing leader means a number of different things.

It means being brave with career decisions, with brand decisions, with agency decisions. It means being brave enough to hire somebody better than you. It means being brave enough to stand up in the boardroom and speak on behalf of your customers, so their voice can be heard when other stakeholders shout louder. It’s about always putting the customer at the centre of everything, even when outside forces suggest other parts of the business are more important.

Being brave is also about telling the truth. The best CMOs are those who speak honestly about challenges and are prepared to address the elephant in the room, something we call uncomfortable truths. This might be about making the most of data, grappling with digital transformation or simply the challenge of keeping up with the pace of change.

For example, at The Marketing Society we all know that digital transformation is the biggest opportunity, but also the greatest threat to marketers. It was highlighted as one of five themes in our 24-hour global conversation, when we asked 40 marketing leaders across the world to discuss the greatest challenge and opportunity for their business.

Four other themes emerged from our global conversation: the importance of cyber security, the collaborative economy, the age of customer centricity and the continuing hunt for talent.

What CMOs have always known is that brands build value and customers drive growth. The Marketing Society Manifesto states: “Bold marketing leaders sense what customers want and find new and better ways to respond profitably and competitively.”

Jill McDonald, former McDonald’s CMO, now chief executive at Halfords, recently spoke to our members about the importance of customers as a beacon for CMOs. She said: “Always understand your customers better than the competition – it’s as much a competitive weapon as having great manufacturing capability – and use that to influence the rest of the business.”

Another former marketing director and now chairman of Fitness First, Andy Cosslett, echoed this, telling members: “There’s a need to have someone at the heart of the business who instinctively understands the brand and the customer.”

Digital transformation also means lines are blurring, around brands, around companies, around relationships, around roles. What CMOs are really good at is persuasion and I’d like to encourage them to harness these talents to make the world a better place.

So adding to the list at the beginning of this article, this is about the CMO as strategic activist. This is about collaborating with causes and needs. This is about understanding citizens as well as consumers. It’s about marketing for good.