Four Top Reasons CMOs Struggle

The many roles and titles of a CMO

“I’m just glad to be out of there,” a recent candidate told me of his latest stint as CMO. “They just don’t understand marketing.”

What is it with the Chief Marketing Officer position that makes it so difficult for companies to find and KEEP the best talent? What are the problems CMOs face in 2022?

It’s a pretty well-known fact that the executive marketer’s incumbency is the shortest of all the C-suite, averaging just over three years. A pandemic certainly did nothing to improve the situation, but the reality is the CMO’s tenure has been on the decline for many years.

What are the reasons CMOs struggle so often in their jobs? Why is this the role continually being redefined, renamed and misunderstood? Where did it all go wrong?

As leaders in marketing executive search, we at MarketPro have heard the stories all too frequently. And, that candidate mentioned above? He pretty much nailed it.

A smart place to begin addressing the problem is to figure out why we have a problem in the first place. After 26 years as marketing executive search professionals, we are wise to the commonalities of this phenomenon.

Let’s take a look at four reasons CMOs struggle.

1. Hiring an individual with the wrong skill set.

If we’ve said this once, we’ve said it a thousand times … hiring a CMO is unlike any other discipline in the C-suite. Marketing is both an art and a science. There are so many nuances to the marketing function that just don’t exist with other C-suite roles.

Take a look at this representation of all the areas top marketers are expected to manage at the B2C level.

The many aspects a consumer marketer must manage
From “Beloved Brands,” by Graham Robertson, 2022

A CMO with a background in marketing to businesses likely has a different set of skills and strengths than those above. That’s a big nuance.

So, what are the specific pain points a new marketer will be expected to solve? Building a distinct brand? Drawing in more consumers through digital channels? Establishing a MarTech stack? Restructuring the marketing team, due to an evolving business offering? Does the state of affairs call for an evolution or a revolution?

Proper forethought and time must be devoted to nailing down the answers before the search begins. You may hire a highly competent marketer but, unless that person is equipped and capable of putting together a plan that addresses your specific company challenges, both the CMO and your business could be destined for a fall.

2. Misalignment of expectations.

When it is determined that a CMO should be brought in, there can be a lack of understanding as to how marketing should drive business outcomes or what should be expected from the role.

CEOs, hiring managers or even seasoned HR directors often don’t fully grasp what they should be looking for, especially the first time going through the process. And, because CMOs don’t typically follow the same linear education and career paths as CFOs or CIOs, the seemingly simple act of putting together a job description can be challenging. Even once the job description is settled, the skills and experience needed to positively impact a particular business can vary greatly.

The CMO is a highly visible role that is evolving at an unprecedented rate with responsibilities and expectations varying at every company. Head marketers have traditionally been responsible for reaching and representing the customer, branding the company, crafting the story and overseeing creative. Today’s successful CMOs have added a full suite of data, performance and analytical tools that help them evaluate the effectiveness of the marketing spend.

Despite that, CMOs are not miracle workers. Unless they are given the full span of authority to create a strategy for driving company growth, they cannot be held accountable for the business failing to meet expectations. This is a surprisingly common reason CMOs struggle.

The revenue equation is, of course, a shared responsibility amongst various disciplines within the organization. If a product doesn’t meet the needs of the target customer and the CMO isn’t in charge of product development, there’s not much they can do to affect a positive outcome.

Another disconnect comes into play when CEO and board are not fully aligned. From personal experience, I can tell you that there’s nothing more dysfunctional than a CEO giving the CMO direction, followed by a board chairman hitting him with conflicting expectations. The CMO is caught between a rock and a hard place. There’s nowhere to turn. This is a common problem in companies with multiple leaders and no clear chain of command.

The best way to avoid this trap is to make sure KPIs and performance metrics are defined up front and in detail with realistic deliverables and timeframes. Additionally, the CMO must make “managing up” and overcommunicating with the CEO and board members a top priority.

One of the reasons clients come to MarketPro is our leading industry retention rate. We provide the expertise, experience and background to ensure alignment of skills, culture and expectations that results in CMO longevity.

3. The catch-all position.

Beware of “scope creep.” It is stealthy and dangerous. At MarketPro, we’ve seen it with our own eyes. A company makes it through the research and interview process, ultimately hiring the ideal marketing lead—the right person with the right skillset to help transform the business. This person hits the ground running and is checking all the required boxes. In response to this exceptional progress, they are given additional responsibilities, and still goals are being met. Inevitably, even more is piled on. Soon, that CMO’s plate is so full that bits start falling off the edges.

Scope creep is pervasive. Somewhere along the line, the very skills and experience that led to this amazing hire have lost significance. This successful CMO is spending so much time tackling new challenges, it becomes impossible to keep up. Welcome to the quantity over quality trap.

This is where we see companies start to change the role, getting creative with new titles … Chief Demand Officer … Chief Customer & Experience Manager … Chief Marketing, Revenue & Product Officer …

I once had a boss with the title of SVP, Digital, Affiliate, Experiential & Enterprise Commerce. True story. He was an incredible leader and highly successful in his position—spinning overloaded plates like nobody’s business. Luckily, this man was a unicorn and never dropped a thing. It’s perhaps the only time I have seen such a scenario work out. Don’t gamble on finding a unicorn. Give your CMO license to expand the marketing team, outsource when appropriate and feel comfortable speaking up before giving up. Manage scope creep before it ruins a great thing.

4. Overconfident CMOs.

I’m going to make some broad generalizations here, but bear with me. Most CMOs are confident extroverts. They are glass-is-half-full kind of people, adept at making the best of any situation.

These are professionals who can tell (spin) a story that ends in happily ever after every time. It is, after all, a qualification of the job. What they aren’t, many times, is good at self-evaluation.

When hiring or promoting to CMO, it’s usually a bad idea to be overly stringent with a candidate’s previous experience or even qualifications. A new CMO shouldn’t have to be an expert at everything.

In fact, Graham Robertson, author of “Beloved Brands: The playbook for how to build a brand your consumers will love,” has said that he considers it a strength to be the least knowledgeable person in the room. Check out why in this MarketPro leadership podcast.

Just remember that marketing extroverts do tend to oversell themselves—yet another reason CMOs struggle. Overconfidence and/or a lack of self-awareness can lead to:

  • A candidate not recognizing or admitting that a role is beyond their capabilities. Excessive enthusiasm for the job can skew the judgement needed to know when a challenge is unrealistic. It’s the interviewer’s responsibility, or that of an experienced marketing executive search firm, to recognize this potential risk.
  • A new hire lacking the communication skills to effectively approach the CEO, board and/or other stakeholders when they realize that things are getting out of hand and expectations probably need to be adjusted.

Clearly, it’s best to recognize the signs of candidate overconfidence before things progress past the initial interview stage—not always easy when interacting with an A-list storyteller.

At MarketPro, we know how critical this is and spend a lot of time evaluating and vetting a candidate’s executive presence, leadership capabilities and communication style.

Bringing on a CMO should be an exciting endeavor. In 2022, the power of marketing is greater than ever before. Cutting-edge technology and new marketing tools allow us to automate processes and leverage big data like we never imagined. The CMO’s responsibilities and abilities have become essential drivers of company growth. These advancements are positive disruptions that are changing the nature of marketing and of business as a whole, making your selection of the right CMO mission critical.

Keeping in mind these four top reasons CMOs struggle can help offset the risks of hiring the wrong executive marketing candidate, saving time, money and endless frustration for everyone involved.

Author: Rob Collins, Principal, MarketPro

When you are ready to hire top executive marketing talent, don’t risk making a costly mistake. Look to the pros at MarketPro.

We’ve been in your shoes. Every person you interact with at MarketPro is a former marketer, so we know marketing from every perspective. Marketing executive recruiting is all we do, and that’s what makes us the leading high-end marketing executive search firm.

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