The rise of the chief marketing officer

Clare Salmon
Clare Salmon

LONDON - The revelation that News International (NI) is searching for its first chief marketing officer to oversee marketing in its Times Media and News Group Newspapers divisions, potentially diluting the roles of marketing directors Katie Vanneck and Roland Agambar, begs two key questions. What should a head of marketing do if someone is brought in over their head to take over elements of their role? And what defines the new breed of CMO emerging in UK corporate life?

The answer to the second question helps answer the first. 'It is mainly about fashion,' says Hugh Burkitt, chief executive of The Marketing Society. '"CMO" sounds grander than "marketing director", just as "CEO" sounds more important than "chief executive".'

The rise of the chief marketing officer is due partly to the creeping influence of the US, where the title is applied to anyone with a marketing remit, but is also fuelled by management consultants, who love and promote the concept of 'C-suite' jobs - CEO, CFO, CMO and COO - in the top ranks of major companies.

'CMO is a flash title,' agrees Clare Salmon, who also notes with irony her own title - group director of strategy, marketing and customer at insurer RSA. 'But what you call it is far less important than what it involves. The situation at News International seems a pragmatic response to a business that faces a strategic challenge - falling newspaper sales.'

Others regard the rise of the chief marketing officer as a significant development in the evolution of marketing. Roy Hoolahan, managing director of recruitment agency Ball & Hoolahan, believes it represents a recognition of the strategic importance of the discipline and consumer understanding.

'Marketing directors complain they have too much to do, and are so busy with execution and managing specialist agencies that it leaves no time to think strategically,' he points out. 'This is a way to bring strategic focus back. If I were a marketing head in a company that had not been very customer-focused, I'd see a CMO's appointment as good news.'

Jonathan Harper, co-head of the marketing-officer practice in Europe of executive-search firm Spencer Stuart, agrees. 'CMOs in this country tend to sit on the executive committee and report directly to the chief executive, so they can wield real influence,' he says. They also often have wider backgrounds and broader responsibilities than a typical marketing director. 'They may start in marketing, but will have augmented the insight and creativity associated with it with strong financial, commercial and leadership skills honed in sales, category and country management,' says Harper.

They are also more accountable than most marketing directors. 'In research we conducted recently, one CMO said that top-line growth accounts for 50% of his total bonus,' adds Harper.

Libby Chambers, who was recently promoted from CMO for Barclaycard to chief marketing officer of global retail and commercial banking at the firm, has a Harvard MBA and 10 years behind her at strategy firm McKinsey, as well as a wealth of marketing and management experience. She sees the role as 'a broadening of functional scope' and is responsible for product development and innovation, corporate affairs, internal communications, external PR and regulatory affairs, as well as the more conventional marketing tasks.

She has been brought into a new marketing role over incumbent marketers before, and says the way to make it work is to clearly delineate roles and responsibilities 'and make it very clear from the outset that you are there to help drive the same agenda, to support them, accelerate their work and give it more impact'.

A split between execution and strategy is one solution, she says. 'Gary Twelvetree, head of brand and advertising at Barclaycard, loves making ads and does not want to write strategy plans, so there is only 5% overlap between our roles.'

Another method would be to focus on individual brands rather than business direction, which appears to be the logic behind the developments at NI.

Whatever the reason for the appointment, an incoming CMO needs to be sensitive if the organisation is to avoid losing good marketers. This is a tension that apparently prompted the exit of Royal Mail marketing director Alex Batchelor after Alex Smith was made strategy and commercial director. But, handled well, the installation of a CMO can turbo-charge the marketing effort.

'Only the very paranoid or immature would see such an appointment as a threat,' argues Salmon. '[Incumbents] should see it as an opportunity to learn and look for shared agendas that will improve marketing capability as a whole. If you are doing your job well, you have nothing to fear.'

Data file: Chief marketers

  • Average tenure of FTSE CMOs: 39 months
  • Average tenure of top 100 US CMOs: 23.2 months
  • Average CEO tenure in both UK and US: 54 months
  • Tenure of more than five years for CMO is unusual
  • Average tenure of FTSE CMOs by sector
  • Technology and media 2.17 years
  • Financial services 2.33 years
  • Industrial 3.75 years
  • Consumer 4.11 years
  • Source: 'The Changing Influence of the Chief Marketing Officer', Spencer Stuart 2006

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