30 months in a CMO's chair

A strategic role on a tactical timeline

Every year for the past 16 years, the executive search firm Spencer Stuart has conducted and published research on CMO tenure. Their newest report analyzes 100 of the most-advertised brands in the US in 2019 and reports a slight reduction in CMO tenure among this cohort compared to the previous year: we’re now at an average of 41.1 months

How does that compare to the rest of the C-suite? Korn Ferry, another leading global organizational consultancy, conducts research on length of tenure and leadership age. In a similar cohort to Spencer Stewarts, they found that average tenure across the C-suite is 59 months (4.9 years).

On average, a CMO’s C-suite peers have an extra ~18 months to put their plans into action right out the gate. 

The more indicative and interesting number is the median tenure that clocks in at 30 months, shaving off almost an entire year (11.1 months) from the average. What can you realistically hope to achieve in ~30 months in a complex organization? Let’s break it down. 

Your first 6 months will really be spent getting the lay of the land. In your first few weeks you’ll get started on your 100 day plan, you’ll meet your team, perhaps a few customers, and generally be in listening and learning mode. Some CMOs like to kick off their tenure with a splash and initiate a highly visible agency review (roughly a 6 month process), rebranding effort (~6-9 months, best case) or similar outwardly visible activity that will tell the world you’ve arrived. The honeymoon phase starts to taper off right around the 6 month mark, 9 months if you’re lucky, high-profile, and very visible. 

The next 12-18 months of your tenure are realistically when you can hope to execute a Big Project: lay down a data strategy, implement structural change to your marketing execution stack, define marketing as a driver of business outcomes rather than a necessary cost center, and ensure your organization has hired and retained people with modern marketing skill sets (which are by definition cross-functional and frequently at odds with how traditional, scaled organizations like to define and recruit for marketing roles). 

Fast forward to the last 6 months of your expected tenure -- the time to wrap up and prepare for the jump-off. Regardless of whether or not your Big Project was successful, you’re wise to be exploring the market and leveraging your current employer’s brand credibility to gauge outside options. If you stay, you risk getting your budget cut even if you’ve been wildly successful because it’s not a given that the rest of the C-suite or your board readily understands your contributions to the bottom line. If you jump ship, the clock restarts and you have a fresh ~30 months of guaranteed salary to try the same process somewhere else. 

Hello new brand. Rinse. Repeat. 

Why should you care?

“Short CMO tenure is a reflection of a lack of understanding of how powerful this role can really be in terms of driving business outcomes. This often leads to lack of clarity around tangible deliverables and also to hiring a CMO whose skills and experiences may not be aligned with business needs.”

-- Caren Fleit, Korn Ferry leader, Global Marketing Officers Practice

Marketing as a function is undergoing a transition and the very nature of the CMO role is changing. Before the smartphone era, CMOs could spend the bulk of their effort and attention on above-the-line (ATL) efforts. Addressability brought forth the promise of instrumentation and that every marketing investment can be tracked and attributed to a desired consumer outcome. Today, performance below-the-line (BTL) KPIs reign and marketers are expected to cogently articulate not just ROAS but projections around cohort profitability, life-time value, feedback to product development, and what tangible business impact every planned and funded activity will lead to. A modern CMO needs to be part-technologist, part-financial expert, part-data privacy and security expert, part transformation agent on top of commanding the 4Ps. This can prove to be a tall order for folks who’ve spent their careers predominantly as orchestrators of different agencies and external experts, blissfully avoiding the complex technologies that need to seamlessly interoperate to execute a modern-day marketing plan. 

In the meantime, a new crop of CMOs who’ve grown up in the digital performance space of the previous decade are knocking on the doors of traditional big brand C-suites. They’ve demonstrated they speak the language of platform marketers, have routinely invested 7 figure acquisition budgets on Facebook/Instagram to reliably generate 50-100MM+ in product sales but have never considered a TV campaign and balk at spending more than 50k annually on marketing tools (a spreadsheet is all you need). That approach may work with a 6 or 7 figure budget; effectively allocating a 9-figure one is an entirely different ballgame. Overemphasis on tools and tech can lead to a slightly different myopia than ignorance of them. 

The CMO conundrum today is not unlike what our CIO & CTO friends went through when open source and cloud technologies began to displace proprietary and on-premise ones, and required a shift to a different approach to architecture, processes, team make-up, and staff skills. As with any discipline in flux, companies have taken to crafting a new role -- chief marketing technology officer -- to make it easier to recruit and retain the folks who are in-between the old-world orchestrator and the new world hands-on implementor. A key consideration here is which parts of the marketing tech and operations stack your company needs to own. Selecting technology partners was not a skillset that one readily expects of a marketer; this is partly why we see large brands regularly flip-flopping between in-housing initiatives, agency partner selections, and infrastructure projects every few years/CMOs. Marketing is a critical, strategic business function that’s at the core of digital transformation yet average CMO tenure and experience still makes it a fly-by-night, haphazard string of hastily executed tactics. Until CMOs are thought of as transformational leaders and granted the purview to execute, it’s hard to see us breaking out of this cycle of short-termism as a profession. We’re left with choosing our one Big Project wisely and not rocking the boat too much. 

One question:

With the takeaway that it’s very hard (or impossible) to connect all the necessary pieces and execute properly in the short time that average and median CMO tenures afford, how do CMOs decide what flavor of CMO are they going to be?

If you’re a CMO (or aspiring to be one) today, what does success look like for you and what would it look like if given more time? It increasingly seems that success as a C-level marketer is anecdotal rather than intentional. How can we as an industry make sure that’s not the case?

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