The CMO role is truly unique. Unlike the more established C-suite roles, such as CEO, CFO, and COO, the CMO is relatively new—and thus more immature. Roles like these take years (even decades) to define and grow into.
Complicating reality even more: Of all the roles in the C-suite, I’d argue that the CMO is the most widely varied role depending on the industry, sector, and stage of company. As a result, it’s crucial to know exactly what skillset is needed in each aspect of the job.
A Brief History
If we look back just 10 years ago, CMOs were a rare find outside of CPG companies. Marketing was more likely rolled up through sales, the COO, or some kind of shared service. The highest position you might have seen in marketing was at the VP level. Marketing was known for producing “the fluffy stuff” instead of the heavily analytical data and processes it serves up today. Back then, no one would’ve ever asked a marketer for hard ROI.
And it’s a good thing, too, because you wouldn’t have had it.
So how did we get here? How did marketing go from being virtually invisible to the fuel that keeps the entire engine running?
Unlike other company functions, marketing has grown to encompass multiple specialties, touching everything internal and external, from prospects and customers to employees and investors. It’s for this reason I believe today’s CMOs will quickly become tomorrow’s CEOs and co-founders.
While this diversity of responsibility gives marketing a seat at a number of different tables around the company, it also makes it extremely difficult to find leaders who can “do it all.” Today’s CMOs must be both a brand pioneer, analytics warrior, and an operator. They must be both right-brained and left-brained. Plus, because they are usually the face of the brand, they must also have strong presentation skills and be exceptional at building teams.
As I reflect on all that CMOs are asked to do, I wonder if we set them up for failure by having the wrong measures of success and, more importantly, unrealistic expectations. The bar should be set high, but with the median tenure of CMOs today being approximately two years, it is worth consideration.
7 CMO Personas
The modern CMO must be good at so many things–yet I don’t know anyone who can do them all at the highest level of competency. Rather, I see seven CMO personas most commonly in business today. I haven't seen anyone take a stab at naming the personas, so here is my take.
• The Thought Leader: These executives are out in the field, speaking and evangelizing for their brand. They’re great at creating a category and telling stories that engage new listeners. These are often authors, writers, speakers, and visionaries.
• The Growth Hacker: I call this the “demand-gen CMO.” This CMO goes deep into Excel spreadsheets to drive bottom-up demand-gen programs. They almost always come from marketing ops, demand gen, or even finance.
• The Product Marketer: A tech background is no longer a nice-to-have but a central part of the CMO’s role. The product marketer is someone who is fluent in speaking the language of tech and can translate the technical jargon to connect with the customer’s purpose and needs. This includes everything from pricing and packaging to messaging and analyst relations. This is often the secret weapon of the modern marketer.
• The Brand Marketer: This person is responsible for how the industry perceives the company and its brand. Their strengths lie in developing the overall brand look, feel, and design. We often see these leaders come from CPG or consumer tech companies.
• The Strategist: Almost like a chief strategy officer, this person is great at understanding where the company’s solution fits in the market, what key strategic moves to make, and how to approach important decisions. They are responsible for driving strategic partnerships and moving the needle in big ways.
• The Culture Builder: Known for building culture, this person engages employees in the mission of the business and rallies teams to achieve departmental goals together. It’s not likely that a CMO would come from HR, but, rather, these leaders emerge from marketing executives who have a deep passion for leadership, people development, etc.
• The All-Around Athlete: This is the ideal modern CMO, but good luck finding one. Finding a CMO with a strong competency with each persona is like finding a unicorn to invest in at the seed stage. My point is that the best CMOs can have the chops to be dangerous in each persona, but they can only become exceptional by leveraging their strengths as a marketing leader and building a cohesive team who can complement their areas of weakness. As such, the best CMOs double as world-class team builders.
When hiring a CMO, I have noticed CEOs sometimes falsely assume they are hiring an all-around athlete. Both the CEO and CMO need to be brutally honest about where their strengths lie and where they should hire. No one person can do it all, but one team can–a team that makes up all the personas that the ideal CMO must possess.
It’s abundantly clear the CMO is no longer a one-size-fits-all hire. It’s critical for CEOs to determine the true imperatives of the role as well as the areas they’re willing to sacrifice. It’s also essential to match the needs of the business to the skillset of the CMO.
In my experience, exceptional communication skills, financial acumen, strong tech knowledge, the ability to recruit, prioritization, and adaptability to change are among the most important qualities of an outstanding CMO. However, no one gets there overnight. CMOs need to be patient with what skills they can develop over time compared with what they need to contribute immediately.
Are we asking a lot of the CMO? Yes, without question, but I would argue that it’s the most exciting and dynamic role in the entire C-suite. I believe more than ever that it’s the reason there’s never been a better time to be in marketing.