The number one reason why marketers fail

Thomas Barta TryThisBlog
By Thomas Barta
Last updated: March 22, 2018

When marketers fail, both they and their organizations suffer. Yet many marketing officers still haven’t built the key foundation for success: alignment with the CEO. That’s perplexing.

This should be marketing’s golden age. Social media, smart phones, big data, and the like: It’s never been easier to understand and reach customers. Yet, it seems, it’s never been easier for CMOs to get sidelined.

Last year, Coke ditched its global CMO in favor of a growth officer (I still ask myself: what, if not growth, was the CMO busy with?). Giants like Colgate-Palmolive, Coty, and Mondelēz have all underemphasized the CMO role by installing all sorts of growth officers. And European Airline EasyJet has just replaced their CMO with a chief data officer. How about CMO tenure? For several years, search firm Spencer Stuart has only been able to report small ups and downs in the (notoriously short) CMO tenure.

It’s complicated

The list of CMO challenges is long. Short-termism creates major headaches, no matter where you look. Digital makes tactical marketing activities more measurable. Now the pressure is on to evaluate and prove everything. That’s obviously difficult when it comes to long-term marketing effects. Traditional lines of responsibility are blurring. Today, customer data, insights, and issues pop up everywhere across the organization. It’s often less then clear who owns what. Add to this the massive growth pressure in saturated markets and it’s easy to see why the CMO role is tough.

Yet one fact continues to perplex me: Alignment between CMOs and the rest of the C-suite is strikingly lacking. We asked 1,232 CMOs worldwide whether they understand what’s right for the business and align marketing with the other company leaders. 76% said yes.

76% appears to be a high number. But it still means 2-3 out of 10 CMOs don’t consider themselves fully aligned with the business.

And what do company leaders say about their CMOs? The picture isn’t rosy—there’s room to improve. When it comes to encouraging new business opportunities (often a top CEO priority), only 59% of all CEOs and GMs rate their CMOs highly.

Internal marketing team alignment is an issue too. Among CEOs and GMs only 43% believe marketing officers make sure their teams know where the organization is headed. These numbers are chilling.

We can always cite other reasons for CMO struggles. But not aligning with the firm’s core agenda seems like a pretty big deal. As a company leader, I’d have second thoughts about my CMO if marketing’s pursuits were unaligned with the business.

Fixing the number one CMO issue: C-suite alignment

As bleak as the alignment numbers appear, the fix may be simple. The following strategies are well known and important, but it’s striking how many top marketers don’t apply them:

Being the company’s best analyst.Before alignment comes understanding. In publicly traded companies, the CEO agenda is partly out in the open. Getting ahold of analyst reports is a good way to understand what matters at the top. When no external reports exist, getting hold of the CEO agenda may involve more lunches with C-suite executives. By adding further internal insights every CMO should quickly be able to grasp the full top-agenda.

For a CMO, understanding the boardroom tide – even better than analysts do – can be a lifeline. And a CMO lifeline is what we need.

Making the case for customers—not for marketing.Even after the real CEO agenda has become clear, aligning the marketing priorities with it can be tough for two reasons.

First off, CEOs can be wrong. Digital Equipment Corporation’s CEO Ken Olsen’s famous quote: “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home,” was simply bad judgement. In the same way, CEOs today may ignore important trends or damage valuable brand assets through too much short-term focus. Business success isn’t about aligning the C-suite with marketing—but with customers. There’s no point in blindly following a CEO agenda that’s flawed. Every CMO must be prepared to be the customer voice that stands up to the CEO when necessary. Of all the reasons to get fired, standing up for customers is the most noble.

The second reason for alignment troubles has to do specifically with CMOs. Too many consider themselves marketers first and foremost, and therefore focus primarily on the marketing function. The moment CMOs take this narrow perspective, they fall into misalignment traps. At times, a bigger marketing communication budget just isn’t the most important firm priority. No marketer of struggling Toys “R” US or Sears, for example, would currently worry about long-term brand building while cash is king. Effective CMOs are business leaders with a marketing spike—not the other way around.

There’s more to alignment than the big picture. Subtleties matter. When should a project go on the agenda? When is the right time to stop asking for more funds (or even to return them)? Which agenda should be pushed during a board meeting? Which battle is not worth fighting? Fully aligned CMO get these subtleties right.

When successful CMOs talk “growth”, they foremost mean the business—not the marketing department.

(From my Forbes column).