High CMO churn: red flag or a sign of health?

CMO tenure is at its lowest level for a decade. Is this a warning sign or an opportunity for fresh perspectives and skills?

CMO don’t stay in the job for long – and their tenures are getting shorter. Is that a bad omen, or is a steady injection of fresh blood just what the role demands? 

You can’t argue with the facts: CMO tenure is at its lowest level in a decade, at an average of just 40 months, according to executive search firm Spencer Stuart. Compare this with CEOs, who now stay in place for more than twice as long as CMOs, with an average tenure of 85 months.

Spencer Stuart analysed CMO tenure in 100 of the most-advertised US brands in 2020. The firm found the drop was fuelled largely by transitions of several high-profile, veteran marketers, such as Lynne Biggar, who left her six-year role as Visa’s global CMO in March this year to take on board director and consultancy roles. 

Too much CMO churn creates instability, distrust and damages the company’s direction. This means that growth will slow, KPIs will be missed, and the brand’s reputation will be damaged

Remi Kent moved to Progressive Insurance in October 2021 after nearly two years as CMO at 3M. Carla Zakhem-Hassan took up the post of CMO at JPMorgan in October after four years at Citi, one of those as CMO.

“The pandemic caused many executives to rethink their career path. It also led many brands to either pivot or rethink their marketing approach. Not surprisingly, how brands choose to take a stand on many current social topics has changed the game in many regards,” says Spencer Stuart partner Greg Welch, who leads its CMO Tenure study.

Pandemic impact 

There are other factors driving the current volatility in the CMO role. For example, Welch points to advances in technology and a changing social environment that influences the role’s relationships across consumer touchpoints. 

The CEO position has not faced the same disruption, with companies less inclined to transition from this role as they are other C-suite roles in the name of continuity in otherwise unstable times. In turn, those CEOs have driven internal change, from strategy to personnel, to survive the challenges that were exacerbated by the pandemic.

“The pandemic gave CEOs a chance to step back and think about what their brands stand for. In many cases, that meant a desire for a fresh perspective. And in other cases, it also provided an opportunity for CEOs to both upgrade their team while also improving the diversity in their C-suite,” says Welch. Such CEO-directed shake ups aimed at improving the business have also led to shorter tenure for CMOs, which in parallel, have translated to CEOs staying on longer to see the changes through and create a renewed sense of cohesion.

It’s not all revolving doors for CMOs, Welch says, pointing to some long-time CMOs still very much in place. For example, Microsoft’s Chris Capossela has been in the CMO seat for more than eight years and with the company for nearly 31 years. Google’s Lorraine Twohill has been in the CMO post for over 13 years, as part of nearly 20 years with the company.

Long-term thinking 

But is the overall trend a death knell for CMOs or simply part of their life blood? The jury’s out, as demonstrated by the opposing viewpoints of two experienced senior marketers.

Marius Nedelcu, CMO at money transfer brand TransferGo, is bucking the tenure trend by celebrating six years in his role. However, the level of CMO churn is a phenomenon he’s seen and understands, driven by the increased pressure on marketing to demonstrate business impact.

“Businesses are likely to see burn-out and stress – and job satisfaction plummet – as CMOs are not given enough time to properly build their function and deliver results,” Nedelcu says.

In recent years, the CMO has been seen as “the silver bullet for growth”, he adds. Businesses expect an individual to come in, identify an issue, implement a new strategy and deliver quick success. “But in reality, growth comes through the collaboration of various departments and leaders of the company, and so businesses must exercise patience.”

Nedelcu says this is particularly true given the responsibilities of the modern CMO: brand development, PR, performance marketing, organic growth and social, CRM, and referrals. “To do all of these well, the CMO needs time to build the right team chemistry for so many roles to perform together,” he says.

Otherwise, he argues, it’s like comparing a relationship with a one-night stand. Finding new CMOs might be fun for a while and provide new input, but it doesn’t help build a secure foundation. 

“Too much CMO churn creates instability, distrust and damages the company’s direction. This means that growth will slow, KPIs will be missed, and the brand’s reputation will be damaged,” Nedelcu warns.

The case for curiosity

Fiona Hope is CEO of Lintbells, the parent company of pet care brand YuMOVE. She takes a different perspective, arguing that an average 40-month tenure for CMOs - around 3.5 years - is a reasonable amount of time to not only create, develop, execute and deliver results, but satisfy experience-hungry marketers. 

Hope draws on her perspective as a former CMO who has spent most of her career in marketing at brands like Whirlpool, Coca-Cola and Diageo.

“To be a relevant CMO today, you need to keep updating your skills. The best CMOs have broad business experience working with different sizes of business and scales of marketing budget. I also believe the length of tenure speaks to what makes a good marketer; they are curious as individuals and curiosity requires you to take new experiences and keep learning,” Hope says.

Hope and Nedelcu agree on the need for the right environment for CMOs to excel. 

“A business needs to ensure there’s an environment in which the marketer can enrich their learning.  And the marketer needs to be prepared to think ahead all the time and ask themselves what they need and how they can stay relevant in the role, especially if the business is growing fast,” Hope notes.

Equally, CMOs need to feel connected to a brand’s underlying mission and purpose - the key, Nedelcu believes, to fighting off a “grass is greener on the other side” mindset.