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Industry Contributor 9 Dec 2020 - 10 min read

Want truth? 2020 was the year marketing had to have to bury a tormenting decade of ‘The CMO is dead’

By Sunita Gloster - Senior Advisor, Accenture; Founder, Gloster Advisory

As far as journeys go 2020 wins hands down. An annus horribilis for many marketers and ancillary players that have a business interest in the customer. The toll on our human capital is still unfolding. But for the profession of marketing, let’s not kid ourselves, the last ten years have been a struggle.

For nearly a decade marketers have faced down a dichotomy like no other. The enthusiasm that ‘there’s never been a more exciting time to be a marketer’ has been omnipresent, inspired by new ways to connect with the customer,  versus the prevalence of headlines calling out the “demise of the CMO”, in everything from their titles, roles, office, tenure, value and enterprise contribution. 

Perhaps 2020 is ‘the year we had to have.’ Perhaps it’s the intervention that will enable us to draw a line under the decade-long lament that has tormented the respect for the profession, its role and its leader, the CMO.

It’s a provocation not faced by any other C-suite role.

Anecdotally, it seems the soon to be legendary events of 2020 have forced a re-appraisal of the influence the marketer needs and is encouraged to have across the enterprise. A potential watershed moment for marketing and one that its bystanders and commentators should start talking about via a new narrative for marketing.

So in the spirit of reflecting on old times and looking ahead, it’s time to herald a new dawn for marketing. Yes, I did say that.

The CMO is dead – since 2012...

Syl Saller, Chief Marketing and Innovation Officer at Diageo in a recent World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) paper on the 'CMO Conundrum' calls out the incendiary Forbes article of 2012, ‘The CMO is Dead’. It started a war that has challenged the role of the CMO for the greater part of a decade.

It’s author, Professor Dominique Turpin, was the Nestlé Professor and President of IMD, the business school in Switzerland. The article condemns marketers as powerless peripheral players who obfuscate what marketing actually is, beyond a ‘great understanding of the customer’. His remedy to have the CEO become the CMO should have been the first alarm bell. Incendiary for sure. And misleading?

Turpin’s tome seeded the lament that has spawned countless articles (ironically mostly from within the marketing profession) on why CMOs fail and a subsequent war on the profession from all parties.  Within a decade of sluggish GDP growth, this battle has been one the marketer has struggled to win much ground on. 

Digital misinformation according to the World Economic Forum is considered to be one of the biggest threats to global society. There’s a use case here for the marketing profession too.

For many, reading the headline has replaced reading the whole story, and the CMO narrative in headlines has been definitive and too strong to overthrow.  

This should have been marketing’s golden age, wrote Thomas Barta in 2018 in Forbes, in an article titled The Number One Reason Why CMOs Fail. It’s just one of many diatribes that illustrate the point.

Headlines matter in this era of optimising eyeballs so, if you got this far, consider the many possible headlines I contemplated before I landed.

One headline wasn’t entirely to blame – 8,000+ martech solutions signals the times a changin’

The rapidly changing media and technology landscape is a tangible proponent in this argument against marketing and the CMO.

Scott Brinker’s now infamous Lumascape-styled infographic capturing the marketing technology landscape shows a 5,233% growth in tech solutions available to the marketer in the past decade. That’s 8,000+ martech solutions available in 2020 from a mere 150 in 2011. It’s a fair assertion from Brinker then that marketers have been unfairly maligned with ‘Shiny Object Syndrome’. Perhaps tech and its ensuing sales force has been chasing the marketer, and not vice versa.

Headlines aside, the WFA calls out the three biggest challenges CMOs faced in the last decade: Economic and growth pressures leading to a shift in focus to short term sales uplifts; Technological demands of ensuring the ‘science of data’ and attribution is built into ‘the art’ of marketing and; increasing consumer expectations, not only to deliver authentically on brand purpose beyond shareholder value, but to also deliver a simplified, personalised customer experience.

These challenges have had a seismic impact on the fundamental role, capability requirements and construct of the CMO and its office – all under a public narrative that was questioning the value of marketing’s existence.

Consequently, waste, control, precision, unlocking internal capability and growth became the fulcrum of the profession which will likely remain a benchmark as we enter 2021.

A $600bn decade of marketing disruption

But let’s take a moment to remember and consider the events that have marked the profession and its re-shaping through the last decade.  What other C-suite role comes to mind that has galvanised an army of its leaders globally,  in command of almost US$600 billion in advertising spend – and more than a trillion in total marketing spend - to lean into re-establishing the credibility of their profession.

Admittedly there was little choice. The death timestamp had already been pronounced in October 2012.  But in cold hard terms, the aggregate of ad spend was increasing and growth was in decline. So waste was the lead criticism of marketing and the shoes did indeed fit.

So with the rising global scrutiny on marketing activities and the surrounding ecosystem, it’s no wonder the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) in the US established the Global CMO Growth Council mid-way through the decade.  A leadership council of 25 of the biggest brands globally including Unilever, P&G, LVMH, Lego, JP Morgan Chase, Accenture, Amex, IBM, HP, J&J, Diageo, Verizon, AB Inbev, Samsung, Mars, eBay, Shell, Cisco and Mastercard.

These were desperate times. An action plan for the profession was critical.  The biggest players in the world had to drive it.

So, with the imprimatur of 1000 brands in the ANA, the collaboration of the WFA, it’s Chair, Marc Pritchard, also Chief Brand Officer P&G, delivered two seminal speeches to rally marketers globally to take back control of their own marketing, and set everyone’s sights unequivocally on re-establishing the credibility of the marketing profession. The livelihood of the profession depended on it and so too did economic growth.

What should not be forgotten in any decade-wrap is that in so doing, Pritchard started with his own mea culpa, declaring his own capability gaps, areas where he had wasted budget, wasn’t ‘in the weeds’ and in his words ‘bought too much crap’ to the consumer through bad advertising. A brave move for any C-suite executive responsible for a US$7billion budget.

It had become the norm for marketers to say, it’s okay ‘to not know what they don’t know’ but, Pritchard looking in the mirror first, declared that had to stop. With that came the global recognition that the modern day CMO had to bridge capability gaps and that the role now required a new set of skills.

For things to change, it wasn’t just the remit of the marketer that needed an overhaul.  There were significant landmines across the ecosystem that needed to be surfaced.  Big industry-shaping themes that had been lurking in the shadows. Once again it was the ANA in the US that triggered intense global industry debate and investigation.

It was a boundary riding expedition. From the murky media supply chain, agency rebates, advertising arbitrage, trading and transparency around media buying practices, brand safety, the truth about ad fraud, the quality of our creative product and the need for independent verification of metrics to substantiate the efficacy of digital media right through to an awakening to the power of big tech.

Pritchard talked openly about his own discovery, slashing P&G’s digital ad waste by $200m. Advertisers globally used the power of their wallets to boycott for change.  This campaign to take back control sent a ripple worldwide, putting everyone on notice to get into the detail, clean up and ‘get fit.’ An imperative if marketers were ever going to reclaim marketing as the stimulus for business growth.

Between 2016 and 2019 the ANA hammered the need for marketers to take back control and to transform the industry through mass disruption and imploring marketers globally to "reinvent media, reinvent advertising and reinvent agency partnerships". 

That agenda has created the deepest, most widespread re-shaping of an industry, a profession and its core skills. CMOs had to ‘build a new plane and fly it at the same time’. Navigating the fiduciary responsibility of that agenda was a steep learning curve itself.

There were competing pressures. Internal risk and compliance with escalating external consumer expectations. Marketers were in the squeeze.  Brands could no longer be street angels and house devils. Now they were held to account in 140 characters in real time. The EU then backed up the need to put people first over data with the implementation of the most contentious, complex and comprehensive data privacy legislation in the world. GDPR had global bite and a jaw-droppingly high sting for breach.  Personalisation and privacy were uncomfortable bedfellows and had become marketing dilemmas.

Marketing was becoming data and technology-driven, fast.  These were not the skills many had learned or practiced before.

What is marketing? Yes, we’re still asking

There was no playbook for this evolving role. For the last decade, the CMO has been patient zero for the most significant transformation in the C-Suite.  And the stakes were high, the churn evidenced annually in the Spencer Stuart surveys of tenure.

Throughout this transition, commentary still struggled with what marketing was? What was the role of the CMO? What were the measures of successful marketing? Attribution still the thorn in the side. There was no guiding principle or definition to be judged against. There still isn’t - Google it. The myriad of responses belies the problem of the shifting goalposts. It’s another unique accomplishment marketing has within the c-suite.

The American Marketing Association (AMA) might come up in your search. It claims to have first coined the phrase ‘marketing mix’ in 1953 and defines and reviews the definition of marketing every three years by a panel of five scholars who are active researchers.

‘Marketing is the activity, set of institutions and processes for creating, communication, delivering and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners and society at large.’ That was the 2017 definition, clearly written by a committee.

Their new definition is due by the end of 2020. No pressure.

Professor Scott Galloway, the industry’s lead academic protagonist, has already socialised his own post-COVID definition. It’s good. Obviously.

‘The CMO’s who are thriving are the ones who say ‘I’m your link to the market, I understand strategy and I’m informing every piece of the supply chain. I understand where we’re getting products and services, where we can save money and lose money, I’ve got my finger on the pulse. I understand what hard decisions we need to make around product and the trade-off between feature and functionality. This is our distribution strategy.’

Mastercard’s Global CMO Raja Rajamannar and current president of the WFA says “CMOs should not be looking at or thinking of themselves simply as functional heads. CMO’s must influence every area they can, not just what is in their purview.’

Only a few weeks ago the ANA (not to be confused with the AMA - I know we’re supposed to be practitioners of differentiation) gathered the Growth Council again at a Summit on Marketing Leadership. Over 300 delegates representing the world’s top brands and over half of the world’s global advertising and media spend.

They committed to an action plan that was both clear and urgent, with documented outcomes against a timeline., The next check-in is June 2021. Did someone say Cannes?

Bob Liodice, CEO of the ANA, shared the plan with me this week and attempted to address my one key question  - following the year that was 2020, how do we define marketing?

I was hoping for a definition that highlighted the impact of the accelerators 2020 had applied to the profession -  the adoption of digital, the acceptance of e-services, the new trust dynamic, the accelerated automation through tech, the power of purpose, the business of experience,  the insight-led recovery strategies that the marketer has been pivotal on.

“You ask the most simple of questions that have the most complicated answer’ he said. “At its core, the role of marketing is to drive business and brand growth. But the pathway to driving that growth is complex.”

He pointed to the pathways that are captured in the ANA action plan. Delivered through 4 pillars – society and sustainability; talent and marketing organisation; data, technology and measurement; and brand experience, creativity and media.

It’s practical,  comprehensive, accountable and relevant. But does it pass the elevator test, to convince C-suite peers of our credibility?

Marketing still in a transitional state

The proof will be in growth. It’s the only metric that will matter. Marketing and how it is defined is still in a transitional state, maybe that’s the new norm? Full credit to the ANA’s action plan that details a re-scoping of the academic pathway, to reflect and call out the disparity with the real-life modern marketing experience.

For many, the pandemic took proven marketing strategies and well laid down plans and partnerships and made them instantly redundant.

Whether you are a marketer that is focussed on brand and comms or one that has the remit to influence enterprise-wide strategy, the events of 2020 have without doubt accelerated a new narrative for your role, influence and contribution. The pivot was real.

As we warm up the vocal chords for Auld Lang Syne and reach for that cup of kindness, let’s resolve to leave behind the language of demise and instead offer acknowledgment for the resilience of the CMO. A role that has had to reinvent itself through a decade long journey like no other. Let’s not waste this crisis, and embrace a new narrative for marketing.

So to those that are still in the fun park or have just stepped onto the rollercoaster, the adage has never been truer. Brace, there’s never been a more exciting time to be a marketer.

And one thing is certain, the CMO is not dead. Cheers! ‘The King is Dead. Long Live the King’.

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Sunita Gloster

Senior Advisor, Accenture; Founder, Gloster Advisory

Sunita Gloster is the Chief Customer Officer of WPP AUNZ.

She has 27+ years experience in the media and marketing industry both locally and internationally, having held senior leadership roles with global advertising agency networks and having worked with the marketing, media and consulting sector.

Her significant  roles include Worldwide Business Development Director for Lowe Lintas,  Chief Operating Officer for M&C Saatchi Europe, Director at PwC’s CMO Advisory, and CEO of the AANA where she drove a strong industry agenda that inspired and equipped brand owners to embrace the growth agenda.

Sunita has been widely recognised for her industry contributions, having been voted as one of ‘Top 35 Businesswomen under 35 in the UK’ for two consecutive years by Management Today. Since returning to Australia, she has been part of B&T’s Top 30 Powerful Women in Media for the last 5 years.

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