What is marketing leadership?


Doing marketing isn’t the same as leading marketing. In the world’s largest marketing leadership study, we found that CMOs who know how to lead marketing outperform those who just do it.

What makes for a successful CMO? Professor Patrick Barwise and I wanted to know. So, we’ve conducted the largest marketing leadership study to date, called The Marketers’ DNA. We interviewed 1,232 senior executives from over 80 countries. With the help of INSEAD Business School, we also analyzed data from one of the world’s largest 360-degree databases. In total our study involved over 68,000 executive assessments (you can find more details in our book The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader).

What we found in our marketing leadership research was stunning. As you’d expect, the best CMOs knew marketing well. But that wasn’t the half of it. The most successful leaders in our study also knew how to make ideas happen. They excelled at convincing people, at making the case for transformation, at changing minds.

Did you expect that:

  • 71% of CMOs believe they have high business impact, but only 59% of their bosses agree
  • Just 44% of CMOs like where their career is going, and bosses even put their CMOs LAST in terms of career success versus all other functional leaders
  • Functional marketing skills matter for sales and profit growth. However, leadership skills are the biggest drivers of CMO career success.

Doing marketing versus leading marketing: what’s the difference?

Doing marketing is all about technical skills, such as brand building, distribution, and pricing—the stuff people learn in marketing courses and from books. Don’t get us wrong; these things are important. But they are merely the entry ticket.

Leading marketing, however, is much broader. It’s about helping the organization expand the Value Creation Zone (V-Zone for short)—the crucial overlap between customer and company needs.


On the customer side, expanding the V-Zone means continuously figuring out what customers need and convincing them that the company’s products and services are better than the competitors’ offer.

On the company side, expanding the V-Zone requires knowing what the organization needs—in the CEO’s view—and mobilizing everybody to create great customer experiences.

The V-Zone is a moving target. Customer and company needs keep changing. That’s why the most successful marketers understand both customers and the CEO really well—and continuously enlarge their Value Creation Zone.

What matters for marketers’ business impact?

Here is a common misbelieve: great technical skills make marketers successful. This couldn’t be further from the truth. When it comes to CMO success, leadership skills are – far and away – the most critical success factor (55% of explained variance in success). Technical sills matter, of course, but are just the entry ticket (15%). The best leaders in our study had decent technical skills. But they excelled at making things happen inside their organizations. We are glad to report that gender doesn’t appear to play a role for success (< 1%). And even the – much discussed – personality is a rather small success factor (5%), meaning marketing leadership success can be learned. Doing marketing isn’t the same as leading marketing!

Source: The Marketers’ DNA Study–World largest research on CMO success, Barta/Barwise

The Four Dimensions of Marketing Leadership

Leading marketing isn’t just about directing teams. It’s also about mobilizing bosses and colleagues—and yourself. Leading bosses and colleagues combined is more important for business impact than leading teams (this McKinsey Quarterly article has more). Let’s take a closer look:

Source: The Marketers’ DNA Study–World largest research on CMO success, Barta/Barwise

Mobilize your Boss (23%): Success in marketing starts with a top management perspective—a view on what’s important for customers and for the organization’s chiefs. Marketers must claim their seat at the top table.

Mobilize your Colleagues (23%): Most marketers don’t have everybody else reporting to them. To get anything done, they must know how to mobilize their colleagues—the people who make the customer experience happen.

Mobilize your Team (30%): World-class marketing is still about great product development, distribution, pricing, and advertising. Early in their careers, marketers execute marketing tasks themselves. But sooner or later they must learn how to build, align, and mobilize a team with the right technical, creative, and interpersonal skills to expand the Value Creation Zone.

Mobilize Yourself (25%): Mobilizing bosses, colleagues, and teams is exciting. But it’s also hard work. That’s why marketing leaders must aim high and continuously find ways to mobilize themselves— so they can keep going when things get tough.

What’s your leadership preference among these four? We’ve created this free online test for you.

Are marketing leaders born or made? Here’s the good news; everybody can learn these critical marketing leadership skills. In our large-scale global research, we found that personality matters very little when it comes to a marketing leader’s success (so stop blaming your genes). Every marketer can start on this journey straight away.

Too many marketers struggle in this digital, global economy. No other C-Suite member gets fired faster than the CMO. Too often CEOs don’t know what to expect from a marketer (and many CMOs don’t help explain). CMOs will raise their C-Suite stature the moment they start leading marketing–instead of just doing it.

Want to get going? Here’s how: