Apr 5, 2023

The Evolution of the CMO – What’s Next?

Digitization has redefined marketing while the popularity of social media, user-generated content, and influencers has meant the marketing functions of organizations have had to adapt.

In fact, nearly half of senior marketers report their role has changed over the past two years while 53 percent are spending significantly more on digital marketing channels according to ‘The Marketing Evolution: Leadership, Transformation, Skills, Challenges & the Future’ research. 

As a result, the role of a Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) is becoming increasingly important to businesses as new platforms and ways to engage or build relationships with consumers emerge and customers expect more from brands.

Whilst this greater reach allows for the untapped potential for marketers, it also means increasing expectations of the consumer with more competition than ever before. So with so much change and responsibility for growth on the CMO's shoulder, what does the future hold for this position and why is it constantly changing?

The start of CMOs

As company-wide marketing evolved out of individual departments, the CMO role was born with a focus on advertising, market research, and brand management.

In recent years, the most noticeable change in the marketing function as a whole is the switch from ‘selling’ to building relationships. Where CMOs used to focus on campaigns that made people want what was being sold, now it’s about the consumer and adapting to what they - in other words, customer experience (CX).

There were also fewer marketing platforms and channels to use, with limited sources of data and a strong emphasis on advertising.

Of all the C-suite positions, the role of the CMO has evolved the most and is often "the most misunderstood and underappreciated" according to Kimberly Whitler, a marketing professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. Today's CMOs have a variety of responsibilities and a strategic input, particularly as consumer behavior changes and marketing becomes more about revenue and lead generation.

How do CMOs benefit organizations?

One of the key roles of a CMO is to facilitate customer experience alongside financial and strategic tasks.

As a result, a CMO needs to take charge of aligning an organization's goals with those of its audience. This requires an outward-facing approach that connects the business with its customers by creating a customer journey map backed up by data and insights.

This requires CMOs - current and aspirational - to diversify and meet the expectations on a company-wide scale in growth, innovation and analysis.

“Many CMOs have significantly improved their level of influence within their organizations by knowing more about the business, marketplace and customers than anyone else. The CMOs who know the most often have the greatest influence.” Chris Ross, VP Analyst at Gartner

The widening scope of the CMO means finding the balance between meeting customer needs while generating revenue and facilitating growth for the company.

Watch: 'Analytics and the Consumer Journey: with Derek Liddy' for some insights on aligning data with the customer journey. 

CMOs have the shortest C-suite tenure

With such a drastic evolution, the definition of the position has created confusion which is partly responsible for the tenure of CMOs being the shortest in the C -suite at only 3.5 years and an average age of 54 years. This is almost half the time of the average CEO tenure of 7.9 years according to Korn Ferry research.

Age and tenure of the C-suite
Age and tenure of the C-suite

Now, most CMOs can expect to sit on the executive committee and report directly to the CEO, but the lack of clarity on the role as well as not knowing what an organization needs, has led to many exploring other job titles like Chief Growth Officer or Chief Customer Officer and alternative avenues such as consultancy. These areas have more of a defined focus and allow CMOs to explore their preferred specified areas and meet expectations of the C-suite but in a less fluid job role.

For example, our recent CMO research found that the biggest challenges for the marketing sector in 2023 and beyond are:

  • Delivering a greater ROI
  • Unlocking the power of data to drive growth
  • Attracting new marketing talent
  • Integrating traditional and digital marketing

The challenge for CMOs is that they have an important strategic focus and need time to assess long-term growth plans, but a lot of time is spent reviewing financial budgets and dealing with campaigns or content approval leaving little time for their overall remit.

The solution? Companies need to look at their organizational development to meet these changing elements and responsibilities and facilitate the adaptive nature of the market.

After all, if the CMO is required to create responsive growth strategies in a variety of disciplines from finance to sales, organizations need to create processes to handle the response companywide, not just within the marketing function. Avoiding the pigeon-hole effect that is actually hindering CMOs from their full potential.

How to find the perfect CMO

Having a clear definition of the organizational marketing need and strategy as well as a clear job description is vital for those wanting to hire a CMO that's a good 'fit' and has long-term goals. 

Bear in mind that not all CMO roles will be the same and job titles are changing to match the purpose of the role such as Chief Growth Officer or Growth Marketing Manager as reported in Marketing Week. The key is to define the role to suit individual organizations and having a clear understanding of how the CMO will interact with departments will make hiring a lot easier for the C-suite.

With such a diverse remit there are different types of CMOs to consider:

The All-Rounder - This type of CMO wears many hats with responsibility for CX, product strategy, innovation, communications, and traditional marketing functions. 

The Customer Expert - This type of CMO is laser-focused on the customer from the moment someone interacts with the company to the point where they purchase. It's not about that one transaction but building a relationship and plotting a seamless customer journey, picking up vocal brand advocates on the way. 

The Strategist - This individual lives and breathes strategy with a focus on what the data means. It's about extracting value from data and gaining insights that will make a difference to the bottom line. They will also be responsible for innovation, product design, and customer insight.

The Marketer - This CMO loves marketing and has vast experience in selling a product with a focus on lead generation. They want to attract prospects, convert them to customers and build engaging and successful campaigns that impact the bottom line along the way. 

Choosing between these roles can be difficult but should involve your company and C-suite asking how much impact consumer insight has on overall strategy.

If this is a critical element that affects product development and customer experience, the CMO role should be heavily strategic and enterprise-wide. However, if the innovation of the product or service drives the need for it, marketing is focused on commercialization and sales, which should be heavily highlighted in the CMO role.

No matter what CMO type is hired, the focus should be on growth and the capabilities of technology (just think about how automation is changing marketing). 

What's the impact of digitization?

It’s not just organizational needs that shape the CMO role, the way consumers make decisions and purchase is more complex now as a result of digitization.

The modern CMO must match the changing trends and technological advances to make effective campaigns and data-based decisions. Being reactive to the market is key to marketing success and this involves analyzing vast quantities of data within the marketing process to extract value and redefine strategy.

Where there were once mass advertising campaigns like direct mail or radio advertising that aimed for the broad reach of a single audience, ad targeting such as on social networks or Google allows marketers to target their audience and turn the marketing function into a wealth of knowledge to be used around the business.

The rise of the internet and preference for online purchasing such as social commerce and web-based searches have driven businesses to consider new types of relationship marketing. An emphasis is now placed on the perceived ‘value’ by the consumer that CMOs must match without eating into their organization’s bottom line. CMOs need to not only consider short-term campaigns to drive revenue but the long-term perception of the organization.

‘Going viral’ for the wrong reasons since digitization can cost a company immensely and allows for a greater fallout that damages overall perception. To rebuild from this is even more costly so CMOs are responsible, now more than ever for maintaining the company image.

With the ability for consumers to publicly scrutinize online also comes the conscious customer who places an emphasis on corporate social responsibility to buy from ethical and sustainable organizations. Influencers, bloggers, and user-generated content act as competition as well as influence the reputation of an organization, and a CMO must understand how to navigate this minefield.

What does the future hold for the CMO?

Changing consumer attitudes and the requirement for constant reinvention show the need for CMOs and this is unlikely to change anytime soon.

As the marketing focus shifts from ‘selling’ to engagement and creating relationships with consumers, personalized communication is the key to opening this dialogue. Doing this requires mining data from channels such as social media and analyzing it in relation to business strategy. It also requires a workforce that understands the fundamentals of digital and its impact on brand awareness, leads and revenue.

As new technologies such as AI swamp marketers with information, the CMO position will become more varied and specific to individual organizations as their expectations require them to apply insight to both strategy and address business challenges.

Companies will be putting the consumer at the center of strategy to focus on customer experience and CMOs will be instrumental in providing a bridge between consumer data and actualizing strategy along with humanizing a brand. What won’t change is that CMOs will continue to wear many hats, to match the nature and influence of the position and steer growth.

Blog updated April 4th 2023 

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Mischa McInerney
Mischa McInerney

Mischa McInerney is the Chief Marketing Officer, Digital Marketing Institute. Mischa has over 20 years' experience in various countries, industries, and roles across the world. She is fluent in Japanese and once hosted a cooking show on Japanese television. She was a co-founder of an email marketing company in Australia, before moving back to Ireland to set up her own Marketing Consulting company. She then moved into Ulitities as Digital Marketing Manager of Ireland's largest energy provider, where she won several national and European awards for innovative digital brand campaigns. She then moved to Bank of Ireland, Ireland's largest bank as Director of Digital and CVM. 9 months ago she moved to the Digital Marketing Institute as CMO of the world's largest provider of on-demand certified Digital Marketing Courses.

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