Companies & Industries

The Evolution of a New Species of CMO


Evolutionary scientists use the term “cladogenesis” to describe the division of an existing species into two or more new species, often in response to radical change in the environment. It appears the chief marketing officer is going through something very similar. The demands on these managers are growing so diverse, never has there been so much potential for two successful CMOs to look so different from one another—to be, in effect, separate species.

This splitting of the CMO position into these very different lines, each marked by discrete strengths in tension with one another, confronts marketing leaders and companies with profound choices. CMOs are quickly diversifying across five critical axes:

Digital Expert vs. Marketing Traditionalist: Marketing’s end goals are timeless. Marketers still seek to build the brand, create consumer awareness, and earn customer advocacy. However, the digital revolution is radically changing the means. Every company must now contemplate the trade-offs between digital vs. traditional marketing expertise.

Business Leader vs. Marketing Guru: Companies increasingly require a CMO to be much more than a marketing genius. They are expected to help the CEO shape overall business strategy and guide how resources are allocated across the business. If you aspire only to be a marketing guru, you may not be seen as CMO material.

Innovation Champion vs. Shopper Expert: The Innovation Champion focuses on building the pipeline three to five years out by making the organization a wellspring of ideas. The Shopper Expert drives the P&L today by delivering sales. Relatively few marketing leaders can truly claim to be authorities in both realms, yet both are clearly vital.

Sector Specialist vs. Versatile Partner: Many companies traditionally presumed a CMO must come up within the industry in which the company competes (or one closely related). But so much is now changing so fast, CEOs now need their CMOs to be versatile to help them make sense of all that is unfolding in the wider world, not just within one sector. This means if you spend your entire career in one company or industry, you actually risk being seen as unqualified to become a CMO.

Sophisticated Strategist vs. Entrepreneurial Trailblazer: In mature markets, where CMOs face flat growth, an aging population, and fierce competition, marketing tends to be highly data-driven. CMOs rely on intricate consumer insights and sophisticated strategies to eke out marginal gains. Emerging markets, by comparison, offer CMOs far less data to guide them, but much more growth potential, and so they reward strategic rigor less than innovative entrepreneurship, adaptability, and resilience.

Business is a Darwinian system of natural selection. Companies and leaders who adapt to changes in the environment tend to flourish. The business environment currently demands so much adaptation, the lines that traditionally defined the CMO role are being rapidly redrawn. The great imperative now is garnering the diverse knowledge and experience required to evolve into a new species of CMO—one who blends both comprehensive and specialized perspectives to guide the company’s ever-widening range of marketing options and investments.

Patton leads Egon Zehnder's Global Marketing Officer Practice and North American Consumer Practice. Finlay leads the Global Consumer Products Practice at Egon Zehnder.

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