Acknowledging the CMO’s existential crisis
Every year, half a dozen industry reports come out with data (insights) that touch on both the state of marketing today according to thousands of CMOs, and where these same CMOs expect to be a year from now. They touch on various areas of focus, shifts in spending, things they are doing well, things they aren’t doing well yet, and so on. Every year, these reports come out, complete with graphs and tables and figures filled with handy percentages and baselines and deltas. Every year, I pore over them and note the changes, the little light bulb moments, the insights. But every year, the overall thinking in the marketing world doesn’t seem to change a whole lot. It seems that, aside from a few incremental changes here and there (many reactive and either paper-thin or cosmetic), it’s really all more of the same, year after year after year. And the part that really bothers me is that that a pretty significant slice of the CMO community doesn’t appear to have a firm grasp on what is happening to the marketing profession as a whole, or to the world of business around it.
Now, don’t get me wrong: this isn’t a critique. I am not here to throw anyone under the bus or point fingers. I’m not even angry about it. If you sense a certain degree of disapproval in what I am saying and how I am saying it, it’s probably more out of alarm than anger. If industry bubbles worry me, blind spots within those bubbles worry me even more, especially when they start becoming part of an overall culture. And perhaps more than anything, watching my profession (and a role as important as the CMO) continue to lose its grip on the world it operates in is just about enough to keep me up at night. I love and care for Marketing too damn much to just let this happen without getting in the fray to help fix it, so here I am, writing this little ditty, and hoping it will change something, somewhere, somehow. I even have some recommendations towards the end, so this isn’t going to be a rant or a manifesto or anything quite so self-serving. No “10 best ways to fix your CMO” clickbait. We’re way past that.
On competence banks vs. competence gaps
It isn’t that today’s CMO is completely clueless. Far from it. Every CMO I bump into is pretty sharp, and what they know, they know super well: media buying, contracts, partnerships, budgets, proposals, process, what other players in the industry are doing, and so on. There’s a huge machine at work when you look at Marketing, and that’s true whether you are standing in the conference room of a major consumer brand or the back office of a small retailer. And the average CMO tends to be intellectually curious: CMOs want to learn. They want to get smarter about the world, about media, channels, digital, analytics. They want to kick ass at their jobs like everyone else (well… like everyone else who wants to kick ass at their job, anyway, but I have no recent figures on that).
But… at least half of the CMOs I bump into (and this is supported by the reports we mentioned earlier) seem to want to focus more on management than innovation, on now rather than next, on being reactive rather than proactive. They seem so overwhelmed with the day to day that they either don’t have the time or the energy to focus building better marketing programs, not that they necessarily see the need for it, let alone sense the urgency. At the risk of being a bit harsh, it often feels like the Marketing equivalent of an IT department that just won’t upgrade from Microsoft XP: some CMOs are still running Marketing 2.0 five years into the release if Marketing 3.0, and show no signs of wanting to change anytime soon.
(Upgrade already. What’s the holdup? Lack of resources? Lack of time?)
After a couple of years, the overworked/overwhelmed excuse starts wearing itself out: I should not be still explaining the basics of ROI to CMOs who should have been clear on what it is and how to measure it (and not measure it) five years ago (if not earlier still). I should not still be bumping into CMOs who don’t understand Facebook, who don’t understand Twitter, who don’t understand mobile, and CMOs who don’t have a firm grasp on what influence is (and more importantly isn’t). I should not still be running into CMOs who don’t have a clear understanding of the actual real-world relationship between paid media and earned media, or how the two should be combined for maximum effect. “Content marketing” is a a hot mess. Native advertising is in shambles. Metrics and analytics are, for the most part, off in the weeds somewhere, pretending not to be a digital cargo cult. Consumer targeting, although it should be super solid by now, is, more often than not, absurdly off the mark. Basically, all of the “new” stuff that the CMO of 2005 had to learn about and incorporate into the overall marketing mix is still, almost in 2015, of a confused soup of hit-or-miss arcane marketing ingredients. That’s not the result of being understaffed or too busy. That’s something else. And this isn’t going away. It isn’t a shrinking problem that will resolve itself in 5-10 years. Technologies, channels, platforms… change is accelerating at a faster pace than CMOs are adapting to it. As a result, the CMO adaptation problem isn’t getting better, it’s getting worse.
So here we are, at a crossroads. We’ve been here for about 8 years. To say that the CMO community as a whole suffers from a lack of direction would be an understatement. It’s stuck, and it needs to get unstuck, now. We can’t keep playing this game of “let’s pretend everything is under control” game anymore. We’ve had almost a decade to learn how to redesign the CMO role and that of Marketing along with it, and most of our peers are still struggling to operate in 2008. That’s not going to end well.
Here’s a dose of wasted potential for you: Marketing, as a line of business, should be more valuable to companies now than it ever has been. The capabilities available to marketing departments are what our forebears could have only dreamed of. We’re living in the Jetson age (their reference, not ours).
- We have access to mounds of actionable, real time data: location data, purchasing data, intent to purchase data, brand affinity data, and so on. The insights from that alone should be enough to make us accidentally invaluable to the companies we serve. What do we do with all that data? Noting much. We collect it, we talk about it, but we don’t really use it. (No, we really don’t. We store it and report on it. That’s not the same thing as using it.)
- We have increasingly accurate predictive analytics. How many marketing departments use predictive modeling to test campaigns? (You don’t want to know.)
- We have on-demand computing power (the cloud) that would have blown a 1970’s Isaac Asimov’s mind, and we are doing virtually nothing of actual value with it except, again, talk about it.
- People have mobile devices they can talk to that actually talk back, and all we we can think to do is throw annoying ads at them. Or useless apps. Some companies are building amazing value there, but most still don’t seem to have a clue.
- We are living in an age of deep, lightning fast insights and 24/7 connectivity, and most brands are still spending billions on crap content that doesn’t drive anything beyond social likes and impressions, because that is pretty much all marketing cares to measure in the first place.
Marketing is still, for the most part, operating as if these advances in tech were just shiny objects to be outsourced, line items on budgets, boxes to be checked: Here’s the report. Here’s the case study. Pat me on the back. Look, we spent money on the cool stuff and counted impressions, just like we always have. We’ll do it again next year, only 4% better if we get the budget we asked for. Think of all the impressions we’ll be able to report on!
It’s worse than autopilot. Two thirds of marketing departments don’t even use business analytics. (That one still gives me hives.) Once you push past all the talking and the bragging, that’s the reality of our profession in 2014, and the CMO of every company that still operates that way owns 100% of the blame.
Engaged vs. Disengaged CMOs
When I talk to a CMO about marketing technology, new channels, targeting, digital, mobile, social, I sometimes get a really cool reaction: excitement, a spark in the eye, that sort of leaning-in you get when someone you are talking to is really interested in a topic and they want to share their experiences. I get to hear about the partnerships they have formed with this and that company, about the cool new tools they are using, about their successful experiments with campaigns and programs. Thumbs-up to that. You’re my people.
But what I usually get is a pair of glazed eyeballs looking for the exit. “Yeah, we have an agency that handles that sort of thing. We have a great social strategy. We’re getting into mobile. Big market, mobile.” What does that even mean? It’s just a pitch, a front, a nice little song and dance. It’s like having a business card with CMO written on it. Yeah, you’re the CMO, you dress like one, talk like one, you even have the right kind of expense account… But where’s the rest? Where’s the leadership? Where’s the insight? Where’s the passion for what you do? Throwing buzzwords at me like smoke bombs only makes it worse: “engagement, content, metrics, hashtags… blah blah blah.” I can guarantee that the last time that CMO talked to his or her IT department, it was to retrieve a lost email or get the new wifi password. The last contact they had with customer service was during some monthly meeting about consumer feedback, during which there was no direct interaction between them. Their technology partner sold them a software tool for their department that they have never personally used. Someone tweets for them, if they’ve even gotten that far. That would have been fine in 2005, but in 2015, it just won’t do.
Here’s something evolution-averse CMOs need to understand, and quick: Marketing cannot exist as an island. And a CMO cannot function without some notion of how vital it is for their department to partner – truly partner – with IT, with developers, with data scientists, with other lines of business, not just in terms of filling operational gaps for this and that campaign, but in terms of building a learning, adaptive marketing practice. That‘s the job now. That’s the CMO of today and tomorrow, and it is a very different role from what it has traditionally been.
It occurs to me that the difference between ineffective CMOs and effective CMOs this side of 2005 has simply been this: some are content to be administrators (and there’s nothing really wrong with that if your company doesn’t want to improve or evolve either), while some are driven by a desire to do something special, to build something new, to not merely exist as a CMO and collect a nice check every few weeks, but to use that role as a vehicle for excellence and progress. It isn’t just about motivation. It’s also about vision and a sense of purpose and wanting to make a noteworthy contribution to the industry.
Even the desire to just stay current and relevant without making waves would be better than sitting there just pretending to be as current as a CMO ought to be… but then why are these people in the role to begin with? Why are they a C-anything-O at all? If they don’t really want to be a leader, why are they pretending to be? Status? Money? Really? Tip: there are plenty of other departments and jobs and things to do that would be a better fit.
Note: laziness, cynicism, being generally disengaged (yes, even at that high level)… these aren’t always the culprits. Fear is often a factor as well. The irony is that fear of personal/career obsolescence ends up becoming a self-fulfilling mechanism: in an effort to avoid obsolescence, a CMO can drive himself and his organization towards it by locking itself up in a bubble of denial and resistance. Fear is a virus. It spreads through organizational cultures like wildfire and can ruin them for decades. I know this. You know this. We all know it because we see it every day.
So what now? Simple. A choice: A or B. What will it be?
This is the part where a life coach, career coach, self-improvement guru would write something insightful about motivation and self-actualization, about courage and self worth, about positive visualization and affirmation. But I’m not a self-improvement guru, and this isn’t that kind of post. This post is about recognizing and dealing with two conflicting realities: the kind some create to convince themselves that the world and their profession aren’t changing as fast as they really are, to protect themselves from fear and uncertainty; and the kind some accept and embrace, the kind that they work to become a part of because that’s where the opportunities live, that’s where the wins are.
So… the crossroads. We’re there. What remains now is a choice, right here, right now, regarding the type of CMO you will be from this point forward:
A) You can stick your head in the sand, pay lip service to industry surveys, and pretend that you are evolving the way you should be. You can learn the lingo and the buzzwords without ever learning the execution piece. You can do that. You can put up a good front and hope for the best, and play lots of golf, and the reality is that nobody will probably notice for another couple of years. You might even be able to slide safely into retirement if you’re really good at playing that game and the finish line is in sight.
B) You can decide to be the sort of CMO who is actually worthy of the responsibility that the role entails. You can do whatever it takes to become as current and fluent and on top of what’s next. You can be the most knowledgeable and competent marketing pro in the room, on the block, in your state, maybe even in your industry. You can be a player if you want to. You can be worth the money they pay you. You can go pro again. Believe me when I tell you that there has never been a better time to get back on the field, to get back in the ring, and just swing for the fences, baby.
You can be a talker or a doer. Your choice.
If you chose A…
Good luck to you. Come back anytime if you change your mind.
If you chose B…
I have been racking my brain for months, trying to find a way to turn this around, if only a little. How can I help steer worried, confused or otherwise disconnected CMOs back towards a better, more productive path? I guess there’s a bigger discussion to be had about this, longer too, but in the interest of keeping things short and digestible today, I figured a good place to start would be a short list of things to focus on. Action items. Key topics to research and pay particular attention to. A list of subject matters every CMO should become not only familiar with but fluent in if they want to be relevant and competitive going into 2015 and beyond. At this point, learning what you don’t know but should know is going to be the bedrock of what comes next. Let’s start by getting you caught up on what you’ve missed:
The Fix – Here are some areas that every CMO needs to be briefed on weekly:
- New and emerging consumer targeting technologies.
- New and emerging business & digital analytics software.
- Consumer product trends and trajectories.
- Advances in cognitive computing.
- Shifts in consumer spending.
- Shifts in cloud computing and SAAS.
- Shifts in organic reach for digital channels.
- Shifts in mindshare/attentionshare by channel category (and individual channels).
- Developments in the “internet of things” (#iot), particularly sensor technology.
- Developments in new retail-related technologies.
- Shifts in display-to-consumer behaviors.
- Best new practices in PR crisis avoidance and management.
- Best new practices in real-time-customer care.
- Best new practices in cross-functional collaboration (operations).
- New trends (web, mobile and tablet) in UX and design for apps and websites.
- Shifts in earned + paid media.
I know, some of those are way outside of the typical CMO’s comfort zone, but… welcome to the new world. This is all part of the job now, and there’s a lot more where these came from. Pick one or two or five, and add more as quickly as you can. These briefings can be 10 minutes long or an hour. Briefings will last as long as they need to. Know the world you live in. Everything you do as a CMO depends on it.
In Part 6, we will look at the second fix category: partnerships. Your Marketing silo is gone. We’re tearing it down, stripping the cocoon away, throwing the security blanket in the recycling. But that’s a topic for another day. For now, you have homework to do. Now go build something.
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This post was brought to you by IBM for Midsize Business and opinions are my own. To read more on this topic, visit IBM’s Midsize Insider. Dedicated to providing businesses with expertise, solutions and tools that are specific to small and midsized companies, the Midsize Business program provides businesses with the materials and knowledge they need to become engines of a smarter planet.
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