A Growing Onus on Marketers to Sharpen Internal Communications

June 18, 2020

By Matthew Schwartz


Drip, drip, drip. The average CMO tenure fell from 43 months to 41 months, according to the 16th annual CMO Tenure Study, continuing a downward trend for the last few years.

The study, which was released last month, is based on an analysis of the tenures of CMOs from 100 of the most-advertised U.S. brands as of December 31, 2019.

“This is not to sound the alarm bell, but it’s the lowest we’ve seen in 10 years,” says Greg Welch, who leads Spencer Stuart’s marketing, sales and communications officer practice and who initiated the CMO Tenure Study in 2004.

The study also provides some bright spots: There was a significant jump in the number of women in the CMO role, from 36 percent in 2018, to 43 percent in 2019. What’s more, among all new CMOs, 19 percent were from racially and/or ethnically diverse backgrounds, compared to zero in 2018. Median CMO tenure rose from 27.5 months in 2018, to 30 months in 2019.

Despite some of the positive results in the study, the latest decline in the average CMO tenure is particularly onerous, as it coincides with severe cuts in marketing budgets wrought by the coronavirus pandemic and a bona fide recession that officially kicked in last February.

“Sadly, we are seeing marketing teams in some unfortunate sectors be shuttered and even very talented people are being furloughed,” Welch says. “For many companies facing severe headwinds, marketing spending will be on hold for the rest of the year.”

Consequently, CMOs need to focus on energizing their marketing plans for 2021 to ensure that they enter the year with momentum, Welch says. “Additionally, as we rethink the makeup of our teams, it is also a great time to think about how to improve the overall diversity and specific skills needed on the team.”

But even before the coronavirus outbreak — with the economy rolling right along — CMOs faced a tough battle to demonstrate the value of marketing.

Part of the problem is that CMOs operate at a handicap from the get-go.

“CMOs have a much bigger bulls-eye on their back in comparison to their C-suite counterparts,” Jennifer Groese, CMO at Winmo, told ANA magazine, earlier this year. “It's almost like the clock starts ticking after they take their seat.”

Perhaps Groese gets to the crux of the issue regarding why CMOs’ average tenure is on a downward slide: internal skepticism.

The holy grail for CMOs these days is not personalization, online analytics, or a shiny new marketing tool. It’s how to convince the C-suite (as well as board members) that marketing is an asset and not a cost.

Whatever strategies CMOs have deployed in recent years to try and strengthen relationships with their C-suite colleagues — and educate them about the benefits of marketing communications —the latest report from Spencer Stuart suggests it’s time for a reset.


Marketing as the Brand

CMOs may consider approaching their C-suite colleagues the same way CMOs approach their audiences: Crafting content that will distinguish their brand and cultivate relationships.

Indeed, a majority of senior executives (78 percent) are willing to read brand content yet less than half (42 percent) consider the last piece of brand content they read to have been interesting, informative and valuable, according to a 2018 Quartz survey of 15,000 executives in 31 countries, nearly 60 percent of whom reside in the C-suite

That disparity reveals a need for CMOs to know their audiences, and tell the value of their brand content in a way that will resonate.

If the CEO has a penchant for video, for example, CMOs should consider telling their story through video content, with the company’s goals and financial objectives in starring roles. Same drill for C-level executives who like print or can’t stop raving about podcasts.

The thread is telling a story — through whatever medium — with a beginning, middle, and end. And then, in addition to that, picking opportunities to talk with C-level colleagues to get a sharper sense of what they demand from marketing and how they like to consume information.

Ironically, the shutdown has opened up new avenues for CMOs to pitch their story.

“Over the last few months during the pandemic, many CMOs tell me that they are actually getting more face time together with their peers, as travel has been clipped,” Welch says. “I actually think this is part of the silver lining for us, whereby the CMO is getting frequent center stage time to share how company brands are showing up — and why it is so important.”

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