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A collection of thoughts, opinions and analysis on the insights, tech & marketing topics that inspire me.

  • Writer's pictureChris Martin

The Role of the Modern CMO

Last week, an AdWeek article that asserted the CMO is the most commonly rebranded C-Suite position caught my attention. The article in question cites research which found CMOs average a scant 44 months on the job, the highest turnover of all C-suite executives.

The author of the article, Brad Grossman, went on to list just a few of the popular alternatives, which included: 

  • Chief Brand Officer

  • Chief Commercial Officer

  • Chief Customer Officer

  • Chief Experience Officer

If that isn’t enough cause for concern, the article also highlights research by the Fournaise Marketing Group which revealed 80% of CEOs don’t trust or are 'unimpressed' with their Chief Marketing Officers.


And yet, as shocked as I am by the figure itself – it doesn’t come as much of a surprise. In fact, the pattern on display here seems oddly familiar. Dissatisfaction over performance, coupled with high turnover and experimentation are hallmarks of the fail fast culture perpetuated by Silicon Valley. If we look at the role of the CMO through this lens, the problems themselves become a lot more apparent.

Failing fast, as I've previously described, is the business philosophy that if something isn't working, it's best to pivot and start over. There are examples of this everywhere, but it's a practice that lends itself to the software industry in particular. It gives Valley startups with potential the ability to try on lots of hats to see which one fits (and most importantly will generate profit).

But why do this in the first place? I'm sure there are many ways to answer this question. But I subscribe to the belief that failing fast is a strategy best employed when the people are right, but the idea is not. Or, to put it in another more relateable way, when a business doesn't have a clear idea of it's identity.

A Crisis of Identity

Marketing as a profession has always struggled to define what exactly it should be. And there are many answers - from acting as the voice of customers, to simply advertising a product or service. But this problem is exacerbated by the focus and additional pressure to produce results that a seat at the C-Suite table brings.

So, what do I think will improve the tenure of the modern CMO and solve their image problem?

A clear definition of the role, that operates against clear, defined targets. While it might be tempting to say it's the job of the Chief Marketing Officer to do things like bring the customer into the boardroom or take responsibility over the brand experience - these are inherently difficult to measure and therefore success is subjective. Not only are subjective targets are prone to change as the in-vogue trends of the day change, but they likely are a significant contributor to the issues highlighted at the start of this article.

My Definition of a CMO

Let me start by saying this. As with most things in life, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the challenges modern CMOs face. So rather than providing a single answer - I'll offer here a starting point.

Every new Chief Marketing Officer should start their tenure by having an honest and frank discussion with the rest of the board to clarify the definition of their role and what they aim to achieve. I have been fortunate enough to be in this position myself recently, so what I'm going to share next is how I have defined my position with FlexMR. This takes into consideration both my personal skillset, the current position of the company and where the senior management team want to see it go in the mid-long term.

Priority #1 - Growth

First, there is nothing more important to my role than growth. As a marketer, I believe delivering growth is one of the most important contributions we can make. Not just to keep things ticking along, but improving them. Here's the catch though - the company can (and has!) grown without a CMO. So growth in this context doesn't just relate to more revenue and more clients - it means increasing the pace at which we acquire them.

Growth isn't just represented by more of something. Often it is better represented by the concept of acceleration.

Priority #2 - Staff

Second, a leader is only as good as their team. Realistically, with a hectic day-to-day schedule and multiple responsibilities, the modern CMO doesn't have many opportunities to input into the marketing assets that are produced by their department (and in many cases they aren't the best placed to do so anyway).

For that reason, I believe it's important for CMOs to invest time in regularly refining and improving both the structure and skillset of their team. This is an involved task that includes putting in place training & development opportunities, ensuring the right hires are made, listening to feedback and sometimes making tough decisions - but well oiled team are worth their weight in gold.

Priority #3 - Customers

I realise that placing customers third on this list may be considered somewhat controversial. However, if this were a list of my top three marketing priorities - customers would certainly take the top spot. But... this isn't. This is my take on what's important to C-Suite marketers, and customers centricity is the responsibility of the whole marketing function, not just the CMO.

That said, I'm always looking for ways to improve customer satisfaction contribute to a happier customer base who want to work with us on more projects. Because, as many marketing luminaries have highlighted - existing customers are significantly more valuable to a business than new ones.

So when I come to judge my first year of performance, I'll be looking to see whether I have:

  1. Increased the rate at which the company has grown in terms of turnover, number of clients and staff size

  2. Improved the structure and knowledge of the marketing team who are delivering day-to-day materials and results

  3. Contributed to a happier customer base who want to work closer with us on more projects

I believe that if more C-Suite marketers focused on measuring and tracking their performance against tangible deliverables like these, the CMO role itself would not only be more respected, but also have a louder voice that can help steer their firms in the right direction.

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