Lisa Nirell is the founder and chief energy officer of marketing consultancy EnergizeGrowth, based in Mount Vernon, Va. In addition to working with C-suite leaders to improve performance, gain fresh insights, and formulate breakthrough strategies and marketing ideas, the company also publishes an annual “CMO Innovation Trends” survey.
The 2015 version is slated for release next month, but Nirell—also an award-winning author and columnist for Fast Company, Forbes CMO Network, and The Huffington Post—provided a sneak peek at key takeaways for CMO.com readers. (Readers can contact Nirell to request a copy of the survey.)
CMO.com: Please give our CMO.com readers some background on you, EnergizeGrowth, and why this “CMO Innovation Trends” survey was done.
Nirell: At EnergizeGrowth, I help CEOs and CMOs improve revenue and leadership performance by deploying innovative, mindful practices that build healthy, customer-centric organizations. Innovation plays a key role in this transformation. When we launched our annual survey three years ago, we wanted to determine the perceived opportunities and challenges senior marketers face, the level of urgency marketing leaders express toward thriving within these new realities, and the practical application of innovative practices and behaviors within marketing organizations.
[Even before that], I asked peers and clients about how these changes were affecting them. CMOs told me that they personally struggled to keep pace with the changes afoot: data-driven decision making, increased focus on sales and revenue quotas, and boards of directors with insatiable demands for marketing to prove its value. To this day, many feel like tactical order takers, not market makers.
With help from my global community and CMO.com, we received 100 responses to our 2015 study. We also pored through volumes of candid commentary.
CMO.com: Who participated in the “CMO Innovation Trends” survey?
Nirell: The survey respondents represented a wide range of diverse industries. While most participants were U.S.-based, we also received responses from CMOs in Australia, India, Israel, Switzerland, Africa, and England. We also interviewed 19 participants to gain additional insights. We will be including several salient comments in the white paper based on the survey, which will be available in early-October.
CMO.com: What are the most important insights from the survey that you believe CMO.com readers need to know, and why do these matter?
Nirell: The most exciting news is that 70% of the respondents consider innovation very critical to their success. This is the highest percentage we’ve seen since launching our study.
Second, we are witnessing a significant jump in a willingness to invest funds to address their biggest challenges—namely, battling for more budget, building and reinforcing their brand in an omnichannel world, and the talent shortage. It’s a double-edged sword: They want to garner more funds to innovate, but a lack of funding is their No. 1 challenge.
CMO.com: Which survey results surprised you the most?
Nirell: Two main trends surfaced. First, ecommerce, manufacturing firms, and media outlets have been touting the accelerated move to mobile marketing, buying, and advertising. Yet our respondents ranked mobile and social media, such as LinkedIn, private online communities, and mobile apps, at the bottom of the list of preferred learning platforms. Since 42% of the respondents told me that their No. 1 challenge is a lack of funding and budget, it may be possible they cannot secure the resources to explore these nascent areas.
After three years of tracking CMOs’ challenges and working with many C-suites, I have found that the nature of the CMO role is still very stressful and under great scrutiny. It fosters isolation. For that reason, these leaders continue to prefer intimate, face-to-face learning venues.
What also surprised me is that nearly 70% of the CMOs rated innovation “very critical” to their company’s success. That’s the good news. Yet only 8% are willing to invest more resources in innovation. This was alarming. After following up with the respondents, I heard a number of reasons why. Several leaders shared the same sentiments. For example, the CMO of a midmarket education company said, “This disparity is more about hesitating to jump into a new, unknown world than about building a financial cost/benefit analysis.” The VP of marketing for a billion-dollar software firm concurred by saying, “It’s sometimes easier to just let the team make small tweaks to the status quo—it won’t provide massive improvements, but it keeps people comfortable.”
Research has proved that a team’s willingness to be innovative is directly proportionate to the behavior of its supervisors. This may offend some readers, but I’ll say it anyway: Their responses are disconcerting to me. They imply that too many CMOs are taking extremely prudent risks and are unwilling to act like innovators. They are order takers in fancy uniforms.
CMO.com: What are the three most significant challenges CMOs see themselves facing, and how are they approaching these challenges?
Nirell: The top three challenges respondents shared were lack of funding and budget, building and reinforcing their brand across all online and offline touch points, and lack of talent to address business requirements.
These results are particularly interesting given the contrast to the previous question’s responses. While CMOs perceive technology to be a major issue for peers, only 18% of respondents listed it as a major concern for themselves. Also, much as in our previous studies, they still see talent as a greater challenge than technology. The CMO of a large ecommerce company said it best: “Finding these people is like catching lightning in a jar.”
CMO.com: What are the noteworthy differences in the results of the 2015 survey versus the 2013 and 2014 surveys? What are the biggest changes?
Nirell: The most encouraging difference is the number of CMOs who are willing to invest funds in the short term to address their innovation challenges. Eighty percent of CMOs are willing to take action to improve their condition within the next six months. This number nearly doubled compared with 2014. This shows a bias toward action, which is very encouraging.
Compared with 2013, when we launched our first study, we see signs that the economy is stabilizing, and marketing innovation—especially within the marketing automation arena—is growing in the technology and health-care sectors.
One trend, however, is working against U.S.-based CMOs. At the end of 2014, nearly two-thirds of the $1.73 trillion in U.S. non-financial company cash reserves was stored abroad. While several respondents in the technology and health-care sectors show strong signs of investing in innovation, other sectors represented in our study are still sitting on these reserves. In our study, association and professional-services CMOs complained loudly about their challenges with garnering innovation reserves. One association CMO told me, “While others half our size have taken the lead in marketing, we find we are sometimes two to three years behind the curve. Some of this is due to lack of funding, while some is due to analysis paralysis.”
CMO.com: The survey showed that CMOs believed that “innovation was very critical to their company’s success.” How are they getting this important work done along with their other leadership and operational responsibilities?
Nirell: Sadly, when I recently asked dozens of top marketing leaders to define marketing innovation, they struggled. That’s the first step to becoming an innovative leader. Marketing innovation is the process of generating a new, improved, often breakthrough program in a creative way. It is often expressed through a variety of methods: strategic account programs, sponsorships, online customer community building, customer experience programs, reference programs, loyalty programs, inbound marketing, and live events.
For three years running, most people felt their biggest obstacle to innovation was time spent on day-to-day operations and firefighting. Creating time for innovation is the first step to overcoming this habit. For many, this takes immense courage, often resisting the urge to say “yes” to the whims of stakeholders and non-ideal customers.
CMO.com: With the rapidly transforming role of the CMO and changing consumer behavior, what are the top skills and capabilities that CMOs must master to be future-proof?
Nirell: These are two of the most important ones. One, CMOs need to continuously improve their communication and persuasion skills in a virtual work world. Some of my Fortune 500 CMO clients still struggle with presenting succinct business cases with storytelling. It’s also tempting to hide behind email and text messaging as a form of sharing your vision. Don’t do it. Pick up the phone; schedule a breakfast meeting. I also coach my clients to eliminate ancient terminology that focuses on male sports and military metaphors. “Killing our competitors” is just one example of this mindless language.
Second, kill the zombie projects. CMOs need to be ruthless about reviewing their projects every four to six months. They need to say “no” to pet projects and CEO whims. In other instances, some marketing initiatives somehow find a permanent home on annual budgets. Some CMOs let these zombies wander through their metaphorical graveyard.
Now that CMOs feel more courageous about investing in innovation, they have to be ruthless about canceling marketing programs that are no longer tied to their company’s core growth and top three to four goals. Those funds should be set aside for marketing experimentation. I recommend between 7% to 15% of their total budget.