Marketers need more sense to stem the tide of CMO firings

By Thomas Barta
Last updated: June 16, 2023

When Marketing Week’s editor, Russell Parsons, asked me to write an article to accompany the launch of Marketing Week’s Top 100 Most Effective UK Marketers, I was torn. What’s to celebrate?


This year saw a record number of top marketers being fired. The CMO brand is under attack. More worryingly, as everybody seems busy with digital porn, marketers are losing C-suite traction. I don’t want to sound overly negative, but this stuff is real.

Belkin, Beats, Citi, Coty, Cisco, Dropbox, EY, GAP, GNC, Intuit, Hitachi, JC Penney, Johnson & Johnson, Kellogg’s, Kimberly-Clark, Kraft Heinz, Lyft, Marriott, McDonald’s, Mitsubishi Motors, Mondelēz International, Netflix, Nissan, PayPal, Rite Aid, Samsung, Sephora, Sisheideo, Subway, Suntory, Spotify, Taco Bell, Ticketmaster, Tyson, Uber, Walgreens, Wendy’s – these are just a few brands from consultancy Spencer Stuart’s latest CMO movements list (‘movement’ is their term for firing).


The CMO title bingo is on. Top marketers are now getting labels such as chief growth officer (what else would a marketer do?), chief customer officer (what’s new?), chief experience officer (WTF?). And here’s the new 2019 thing: teams are now getting rebranded as ‘growth marketing’. Really?

Growth marketing is as clever a title as performance marketing. It suggests the job previously wasn’t about growth (or performance). Behind the relabelling stands a more serious CEO message: “I’m dissatisfied with your work.” For the CMO brand, this could be the beginning of the end.

Things on the agency side aren’t looking better.

Who’s doing well? Tech firms – and everybody who knows how to book a Facebook campaign. Where are the truly strategic agencies? The people who once had the CEO’s ear? The agencies that challenged marketers to think long term?

J Walter Thompson, the force behind brands such as Kraft Cheese and De Beers (‘A Diamond is Forever’), just got subsumed under the digital outlet Wunderman. Ogilvy & Mather, the former boardroom power, has just ditched David Ogilvy’s mantra ‘We sell or else’ in favour of ‘We change or else’. As a client, I’d be losing my will to live.

As a marketer, why should you care? Why should you worry about what’s happening up there in the C-suite? The answer is simple: this is about your future. When marketing’s reputation erodes at the top, so will yours. When CMOs get kicked out of the boardroom, so will the customer’s voice. When everybody in marketing gets a funny title, so will you (one day).

Sorry if I’m sounding a little dark. But these facts went through my mind that night when I was thinking about what to write. To distract myself, I watched this interview with Syl Saller, Diageo’s long standing CMO. It came at just the right time and brought all my optimism back.

For the past 10 years, I’ve been spearheading marketing leadership research. In over 200 keynotes, I’ve made the passionate case that marketers must mobilise bosses and colleagues for change (rather than just doing campaigns). Watching Saller and seeing the many brilliant minds on Marketing Week’s Top 100 list made me hopeful: there are great marketing leaders who cut through the digital clutter. Who get brand purpose right. Who deliver growth.

Digital sense

Marketing technology is awesome. But digital could easily become the shovel with which marketers are digging their own grave.

Let’s be clear: martech is critical. I’m a big advocate. I’m even helping many tech firms and media brands to make the case. But digital media is a fraction of one of the four Ps (product, price, promotion, place). Marketers who only learn tactical digital campaigning might simply end up in sales support (that’s already happening).

When Saller talks about martech’s benefits, she lists marketing effectiveness and figuring out at what time of the year TV works best. Or take Adobe, currently one of the world’s most successful martech firms. It spends a large chunk of its budget on analogue marketing: events.

A true marketing leader has digital sense. That’s loving technology when it helps to solve a real problem.

Brand purpose sense

It makes me nervous when a marketing team tells me their brand is now all about solving the world’s problems. The remarkable Paul Polman, Unilever’s former CEO, is perhaps the most transparent leader when it comes to purpose. Polman truly cares for our world (he’s even become a full-time activist). But he loses no opportunity to talk about the challenges of doing good with shareholders on your back.

It’s more about tiny steps – and starts with paying your taxes (I agree with Mark Ritson on this). Consumers see though glossy purpose adverts anyway. Bailey’s, for example, long tried to empower women, but women didn’t really want Bailey’s help on that front. The brand now positions itself as an ‘adult treat’ again – and it’s growing.

Keen to boost brand purpose? Do real things that help real people. Diageo’s gender-neutral parental leave policy and Saller’s push for more female agency talent are perhaps doing more for women than any of their ads ever did.

Business sense

Customers and companies love similar things: more and better stuff, at lower costs. Being a marketer sets people up for this intrinsic conflict. The art of marketing leadership is to play inside the ‘value-creation zone’, the space where customer and company overlap. That’s a pretty demanding job.

Most marketers are pretty busy trying to figure out which colour, taste and content customers want. Adidas, for example, has trend scouts everywhere who do nothing but find new grassroots trends.

But there’s the other stakeholder: the CEO. Marketing professor Kim Whitler has found that, more often than not, CEOs and top marketers aren’t aligned. It’s one of the reasons why CMOs don’t last long.

Saller is undoubtedly a great marketer. But make no mistake: she and her team are only around as long as they deliver what Diageo’s CEO cares for: profitable growth.

Here’s my dream: I wish every skilled and customer-loving marketer would also develop digital sense, purpose sense and business sense. The entire marketing profession would make a big leap forward. For me, that’s a goal worth aspiring to.

Try This >> Don’t take my word for it, take Syl’s.

(From my Marketing Week column)