The Role of the CMO Hasn’t Changed, but the Way It’s Carried Out Has

While more brands are eliminating the position, it may just be an adjustment period

Headshots of Alison Lewis, Silvia Lagnado and Rebecca Messina
Alison Lewis (Johnson & Johnson), Silvia Lagnado (McDonald’s) and Rebecca Messina (Uber) have all left their positions recently. Courtesy of J&J, McDs and Uber
Headshot of Diana Pearl

What’s in a name? For CMOs, that’s a complicated question.

For decades, the title of chief marketing officer was synonymous with heading up a company’s marketing division and being responsible for building a brand. Today, marketers aren’t just responsible for bringing consumers into a brand but also entertaining them and targeting them so they come back. And of course, the channels in which people can be marketed to have multiplied, thanks to the emergence of digital behemoths like Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

All this has made for a landscape that’s both radically different from—and at the same time, fundamentally similar to—what it was 20 years ago. With data and digital playing a bigger role and traditional marketing becoming a smaller piece of the pie, CMOs are increasingly tasked with responsibilities that feel closer to those of a chief technology officer or chief information officer. And with that, the foundational element of brand building takes a back seat.

Changes in that process have meant not only that a CMO’s duties have evolved, but so has the very nature—and in some cases, existence—of the position itself. Over the past year, several high-profile CMOs (including marketing chiefs at Johnson & Johnson, Lyft, Taco Bell and Uber) left their posts and were not replaced. Instead, their responsibilities were passed onto others.

Russell Barnett, CMO of My/Mo Mochi Ice Cream, said this might be something of a blessing in disguise. The CMO role has become known for high turnover—according to a 2018 study from Winmo, the average tenure of a CMO is 43 months—but a different title could help prevent that.

“It’s a way to ground someone in the business that gives a little longevity within the organization,” he said. “It provides a space where it’s a bigger role than just simply marketing.”

A CMO now looks beyond sight, sound and motion as their calling card, instead looking at everything from performance metrics to attribution models. And all of this takes time, so in addition to the added responsibilities, they have less time to pull it off.

“A lot of big companies have realized that their process, which used to be a competitive advantage because it was careful, well thought out, documented and rigorous, is now becoming a disadvantage because their more agile competitors around them can make decisions more quickly,” said Dana Anderson, chief transformation officer of MediaLink and former CMO of Mondelēz.

But when that process was the very thing that made CMOs such adept brand builders, what happens when the pressure to sacrifice that builds up? Jill Cress, vp of consumer marketing core markets at PayPal and former CMO of National Geographic, said expectations are higher for marketers when it comes to driving results.

“The role is becoming much more balanced between brand building and performance marketing,” she said. “As we can measure more and we’re trying to reach consumers through digital platforms, the burden of performance has certainly increased.”

Though expectations and the media by which marketers exhibit their skills have changed, the core responsibility of the CMO has remained, said Barnett. It’s keeping up with the changes in the environment that has created challenges for marketers.

“The function is never going to change; that is the primary responsibility,” he said. “What has happened is the tactical tools have changed.”

An emergence of new titles, such as chief growth officer or chief brand officer, came with the evolving CMO role. But Marisa Thalberg, who left her CMO role at Taco Bell in August, said she views these as essentially “interchangeable.”

With the shifts in titles at the top, experienced marketers are considering more options than ever.

“For me exploring what was next was more about the strategy and commercial nature of the role versus the semantics of the title,” Cress said of determining her next step post-National Geographic. “I did explore CMO roles but was more focused on attributes where I felt I could contribute and grow regardless of the title. CMO roles that didn’t recognize marketing as a driver for real growth were not appealing to me.”

And for the naysayers, Anderson said top CMOs aren’t nervous about the role disappearing. The vast majority of major companies still have a CMO in place, and the CMOs are happy to take on added tasks.

“Frankly, this role has never been more critical,” continued Thalberg. “The best CMOs in the world are actually doing an admirable job of integrating both old and new skills. What we really need is a little bit more appreciation, understanding and support to do the hard work of growing businesses at very challenging times in almost every industry.”

This story first appeared in the Nov. 25, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@dianapearl_ Diana is the deputy brands editor at Adweek and managing editor of Brandweek.