The Changing Role of the CMO: Navigating the Dynamic Landscape of Modern Marketing

Chief Marketing Officers (CMO) find themselves in one of the most challenging roles in the C-suite. Not only is marketing one of the fastest-changing disciplines, it’s also the only one in which the customer owns what you do. While everyone believes they can do it, the truth is, most C-suite leaders don’t fully comprehend how multifaceted the job is.

What makes marketing leaders exceptional is their ability to wear multiple hats. They are customer champions, seeking to understand and give voice to the needs and desires of their target audience. They are innovation catalysts and capabilities builders, driving their organizations to explore new technologies and analytics that strengthen their go-to-market competencies. They are growth drivers influencing sales and profits. And, above all, they are storytellers, weaving narratives that captivate and engage stakeholders to take action.

However, a CMO is not a silver bullet—and neither is a Chief Communications Officer (CCO). Marketing communications leaders cannot salvage outdated or poor business strategies, address competitive disadvantages, or enhance subpar products and services. They also cannot bridge the gap when a company’s mission, vision and values don’t align with the actions of its leaders.

One of the most significant challenges facing modern CMOs is the demand for instant return on investment (ROI). In a world where CEOs often live quarter to quarter, sticking to a long-term marketing strategy can be a daunting task. The key is to shift the focus from generic growth (at all costs!) to meaningful growth tied to sales and profits. Performance marketing plays a crucial role in demonstrating the value of marketing efforts to the bottom line, as does speaking the language of the CFO to connect the dots between marketing efforts and growth outcomes.

When stepping into a new marketing communications role, watch out for red flags that could thwart growth in the near term. Avoid potential time-consuming distractions like:

  • Starting with agency reviews
  • Reimagining the value proposition
  • Taking on a logo redesign
  • Tinkering with the messaging hierarchy
  • Revamping the media mix
  • Embarking on a speaking circuit

While these activities can be worthwhile further down the road, at the outset, you may not have the time right away to prove ROI. Remember the adage: Sales overnight, brand over time. Instead, CMOs and CCOs should:

  1. Listen to stakeholders and build alignment with the CEO and Board.
  2. Understand the business challenges and opportunities at hand. Position yourself as a businessperson first, who happens to have deep marketing expertise.
  3. Get to know your team. Assess how well you show up as a strategic thinker, creative driver, analytics person and leader. While you can’t be vacant in any of these areas, know your strengths and fill your gaps. A key aspect of building high-performing teams is fostering diversity, equity and inclusivity. Research shows that such teams are much more likely to achieve better business outcomes, innovate more effectively, perform at a higher level and meet or exceed revenue targets.
  4. Obsess over your customer. CMOs and CCOs need to know their audience in a way no other C-suite leader does. The key is to leverage data and insights to demonstrate your expertise and command of the marketplace.
  5. Be well-versed in external factors that could impact growth. These X-factors include technological disruptions, regulatory changes, demographic shifts, economic fluctuations, industry competition, evolving social and cultural norms and the geopolitical landscape. Familiarity with these external forces enables CMOs and CCOs to adapt their strategies proactively and navigate challenges effectively.

The role of the CMO has evolved into a multifaceted C-suite position that requires balancing short-term demands for ROI with long-term strategic vision, building strong relationships with stakeholders and leading high-performing, diverse teams. They must leverage their deep understanding of customers and stay vigilant in the face of external factors that could impact growth, all while operating at a higher level of self-awareness. As marketing continues to evolve at warp speed, the CMOs and CCOs who can confidently say they are using better information to make faster, smarter decisions year after year will play a critical role in shaping the future of their organizations and influencing marketplaces. Is that you?

PLUS: 11 Resources for CMOs (in no particular order)

  1. Pivot
  2. WorkLife with Adam Grant
  3. A Bit of Optimism
  4. CMO Confidential
  5. Money Stuff with Matt Levine
  6. Wall Street Journal CMO Today
  7. Arthur Brooks in The Atlantic
  8. Stratechery
  9. Possible with Reid Hoffman and Aria Finger
  10. Hidden Brain
  11. Firm Beliefs

By Reed Handley

This piece reflects key learnings from CMO Coaches’ sold-out CMO Bootcamp, with assistance from ChatGPT. Information within has been fact-checked for accuracy.

Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich via Pexels