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Deep Dive 25 Oct 2021 - 7 min read

Marketing Academy CEO Sherilyn Shackell: CMOs more powerful post-pandemic but stretched to limits grappling broader business remits, mental health, wellbeing; concerns rise for agencies as 'kicking boys'

By Paul McIntyre & Brendan Coyne

The Marketing Academy has spoken with 10,000 marketers since Covid took hold. Far from being sidelined by digital transformation, CEO Sherilyn Shackell says the evidence suggests CMOs have emerged more powerful and closer to the c-suite with broader remits. But they are massively stretched – and their teams are still suffering the effects of Covid. Which makes a mockery of the term 'soft skills'. Leadership, wellbeing and professional development have never been so important, she suggests: "If you don't look after that stuff, you're shafted." But it's worse for agencies, says Shackell, which are suffering serious talent blood loss and a recruitment crisis – with another wave of in-housing about to hit.

Leadership is not a soft skill. Personal development should not be seen as soft… it's essential. Mental wellbeing and wellness. That's not soft stuff. If a CEO isn't putting the mental wellbeing of their employees front and centre right now, whilst they're all still feeling exhausted – then it doesn't matter how good their ‘hard capability’ is – it all goes out the window.

Sherilyn Shackell, CEO, The Marketing Academy

What you need to know:

  • Contrary to a five-year narrative, CMOs have not been sidelined by digital transformation and new skills from alternative business leaders, says the founder and global CEO of not-for-profit, The Marketing Academy.
  • Marketing teams have been under enormous pressure through Covid; it's forced new capabilities for CMOs in managing mental health and personal development along with broader business and operational skills.
  • Privately, marketing leaders around the world coaleseced on burning mainstream societal issues like Black Lives Matter - they didn't know how to manage or respond in such crises but were expected to be the consumer and customer experts.
  • Shackell is concerned about the future of agencies - they're in big trouble and are increasingly the "kicking boys" for marketing teams under pressure. 
  • Agencies are also facing another three-year wave of in-housing but the pendulum will ultimately "flip back".

 

Don't fear the reaper

Sherilyn Shackell thinks the pandemic has been the making of marketers – and that the theory CMOs have been sidelined by tech teams driving wholesale digital transformation holds no water.

“You can't do digital transformation without putting your customer right at the centre of it. If you put your customer right at the centre of it, then you have to be including marketing in a really big way,” says Shackell.

“So the CMOs have had a louder voice over the last 18 months and the really good ones – those that really understand how to influence the board – have been feeding into that digital transformation in a very different way,” she says. “So I believe that the importance of marketing through digital transformation programmes has been increased, without shadow of a doubt.”

Likewise, Shackell gives short shrift to the notion that organisations are ditching CMO functions and handing the reigns to chief growth and chief customer officers, with General Mills the latest notable example.

“They’ve rebranded it. That’s all they have done. No organisation is going to drop marketing. [General Mills] is looking for more bang for buck; they are looking to get a broader skill set in the domain that’s touching their customer,” suggests Shackell.

“That isn't a bad thing, and it isn't something we need to be frightened about. If General Mills was saying ‘we're going to completely collapse our marketing organisation, we're going to have no brand managers, no R&D, no innovation, no product development, we're going to drop everything – no brand building.

“Seriously, General Mills will stop brand building? I doubt it. So they're still going to have it all. It just may be that marketing is starting to be taken so seriously that it's becoming one of the key functions – and they're putting other functions underneath it,” says Shackell. “I don't think that’s a bad thing.”

C-suite demand more, marketers stretched

Yet the impact of the pandemic means that CEOs and CFOs are asking far more questions of marketers – and placing even greater weight upon their shoulders. That is the view from some 10,000 marketers and agencies attending The Marketing Academy’s programmes over the last 18 months – and it means marketers must now be across literally everything.

“[The c-suite] wants more. That’s not a bad thing, but it means marketers have to look after themselves a bit more – because they are being stretched so broadly,” says Shackell. “They have got to be looking right across their business, so they have got to be looking out of their silos.

“We've seen a number of chief digital officers being appointed over the last 18 months and very, very often they come out of the marketing silo. The ability of marketing to touch all of the different touch-points around the business – finance, innovation, R&D, customer service, operations, sales – good marketers have always touched all of those other functions around the business,” she adds.

“Now, with businesses having to completely transform how they work. The role of those marketers has never been so important or so influential. But they are being asked for more; they're being asked to stretch their skill set across a wider base. And that's tough.”

[Agencies] have to look after the people that they’ve got. Do not burn out your people. Do not get them working 16 or 17 hours a day. Pay them well, invest in them, develop them, engage them, enable them to thrive – and your retention will go up and they will be your biggest advocates. So agencies have just got to focus – and it comes down to leadership.

Sherilyn Shackell, CEO, The Marketing Academy

CMOs breaking into boards

Shackell thinks the additional weight marketers are being asked to carry means more CMOs will ultimately become CEOs and board members – and the Academy’s data from the top level CMO courses it runs in partnership with McKinsey in the US and EMEA suggests it is already happening.

“There are 150 programme alumni and we have definitely seen a trend over the last two years for our CMOs to be taking bigger broader roles at board. The last piece of research found 58 per cent of our fellowship alumni had moved to a broader board level role within two years of finishing the programme,” says Shackell.

“They haven't dropped marketing; they are all born and bred career marketers, but their onward direction of travel has become broader. We've seen them become managing directors, some of the managing directors of marketing, which was never there before. So they've grown the scope of their roles. We've seen them become chief growth officers, we've seen them become chief customer officers.”

Shackell thinks that trend is set to continue. “So the challenge for CMOs is to develop their capabilities to keep up with that kind of breadth.”

Soft skills or bust

Besides broader technical and business remits, how have marketers coped with maintaining ‘soft skills’ such as leadership, self-development and wellbeing?

Shackell baulks at the descriptor.

“Those skills are anything but soft. Leadership is not a soft skill. Personal development should not be seen as soft… it's essential.”

She says Covid hammered home that point, as marketers were asked to lead their organisation though the unknown while entire organisations were being stretched to breaking point.

“Mental wellbeing and wellness. That's not soft stuff. If a CEO isn't putting the mental wellbeing of their employees front and centre right now – whilst they're all still feeling exhausted and overwhelmed – then it doesn't matter how good their ‘hard capability’ is – it goes out the window,” says Shackell.

“If you don't look after that stuff, you're shafted. So there has never been a more important time for exceptional leadership than now.”

Marketers had questions [about Black Lives Matter] that they would be too uncomfortable to ask anybody. And yet they were seen to be the ones that were supposed to have all of the answers to how a brand was supposed to respond to this, which is why we saw so many fuck ups.

Sherilyn Shackell, CEO, The Marketing Academy

Black Lives Matter: avoiding “fuck ups”

The Marketing Academy opened up its courses during the pandemic to allow alumni to invite teams into the sessions on leadership, skills and wellness, “because those were the things that were top of their list. They needed support around their mental health”, says Shackell

The open approach meant the Academy could also quickly react to help marketers understand what to do when the Black Lives Matters movement intensified last year, with marketers tasked with guiding organisations through a highly sensitive environment that most had little clue how to navigate.

“We quickly created a series of four intense, honest and open talks [enabling] radical candour, but in a safe space. There was so much going on in [marketers’] heads. Firstly, our industry is predominantly white,” says Shackell.

“Firstly it was ‘oh my God, how do we respond to this as a brand, and then how am I responding to this as a human being?’ They had questions that they would be too uncomfortable to ask anybody. And yet they were seen to be the ones that were supposed to have all of the answers to how a brand was supposed to respond to this, which is why we saw so many fuck ups. We saw companies doing ridiculous things, posting stuff with all of the employees in their business literally cringing, especially their employees of colour,” she adds.

“So we were able to provide them with a space where they could ask questions or voice views they were too afraid to say externally. Some of that was literally ‘I don't know what to do. I don't know what to feel. I don't even know whether I've got biases, subconscious biases. I don't even truly understand why I think what I think’. Because it was a profound point in time, and anybody that was white and a bit privileged went into freeze mode,” says Shackell.

“We knew that we needed to do as much as we could to help them really understand what being excluded meant, what diversity really meant, what it really meant to walk in the shoes of someone who's been isolated or excluded for most of their life, which is half of their customers.”

The upshot was that marketers got a broader sense of what they could do, and were not alone in not knowing the answers, says Shackell.

“They realised that is was not weak to ask for help and input on it.”

[Agencies] are going to survive if the current leadership really understands that this is a potential issue and do as much as they can to fix it – raising the profile of the industry at large, raising awareness right the way down to the schools and universities about this fantastic potential career path.

Sherilyn Shackell, CEO, The Marketing Academy

Agencies bleeding out

While the last 18 months have been the toughest in living professional memory, Shackell reiterates the upside is that marketers – while physically and emotionally battered – are emerging as a stronger force, with deeper capabilities. That sentiment is also borne out by the caliber of younger marketers entering the Academy’s ranks.

But she thinks agencies – creative, media and digital – are in big trouble.

“I've got concerns because they're overworked. They are really under the pump and the agencies have not yet completely figured out what [their structure] will be going forward.”

The pandemic compounded problems agencies have been struggling for years to address.

“They're the ones that for some organisations are the kicking boy. They've always been under pressure – with margins, with workload, under pressure with potential burnout – and that got worse.”

The upshot is that agencies are struggling to keep staff let alone attract new talent.

“I'm hoping that the industry can still be as attractive as a profession, because it took a lot of blows over the last twelve months, and we started to see a higher proportion of talent leaving the industry. Which is just a tragedy, but we definitely saw that happening,” says Shackell.

Yet there is an irony in that agencies are plugging directly into The Marketing Academy’s core constituents, which are generally those dishing out the kickings. How does the Academy reconcile that apparent tension?

“Because we make sure that tension is worked on for the cohorts that we put through the programme. While the CMO programme we run is exclusively brand-side CMOs, the scholarship splits across all the whole industry. We work really hard to ensure that they all understand each other – that's point 101,” says Shackell.

“But it's not the norm, that's not what happens around the world – and agencies are the first ones to get squeezed. They're half our talent pool and we care passionately about them. So I'm just a little worried that people are leaving the industry. And if they're leaving, is it going to be an attractive industry for people to go into?”

Prepare for more in-housing

Given the headwinds agencies face, Shackell thinks the in-housing shift still has some miles in the tank – and may yet gather speed.

“I think there will be another swing to in-sourcing, we'll get that for a time. That whole pendulum swings every two or three years – and maybe there's going to be a bit of a swing now to bringing in creative, design, innovation, management,” says Shackell.

“It'll flip back again once [brands] realise that running a creatively-led business is very different,” she adds, but warns agencies not to underestimate the existential threat they face through blood loss.

“[Agencies] are going to survive if the current leadership really understands that this is a potential issue and do as much as they can to fix it – raising the profile of the industry at large, raising awareness right the way down to the schools and universities about this fantastic potential career path,” says Shackell.

In the short-term, stemming the blood loss is even more critical:

“[Agencies] have to look after the people that they’ve got. Do not burn out your people. Do not get them working 16 or 17 hours a day. Pay them well, invest in them, develop them, engage them, enable them to thrive – and your retention will go up and they will be your biggest advocates. So agencies have just got to focus – and it comes down to leadership.”

We’re exploring options [to launch the CMO scholarship in Australia and New Zealand ]. I think the timing could be right.

Sherilyn Shackell, CEO, The Marketing Academy

Marketing Academy down under, virtual push ahead

The Marketing Academy’s Australian scholarship programme for 2022 is open for applications until the first week of December – and the CMO fellowship programme may soon come to Australia and New Zealand. “We’re exploring options,” says Shackell. “I think the timing could be right.”

Meanwhile, the Academy has designed a new Virtual Campus Programme – a 24-part programme delivered live but virtually.  It is free of charge – but by invitation only.

Shackell says some 5,500 people are already enrolled around the world: “It’s the industry’s best kept secret because we launched it in January this year.”

While the virtual programme will “never replace the scholarship and fellowship,” the plan is to scale further.

“We needed to figure out what it would be, to make sure it was exceptional and that would have impact. So we soft drilled it this year, and enabled all our mentors, coaches, scholars and sponsors around the world to enrol their teams,” says Shackell.

“I want that to be the biggest gift to the industry… We are going to continue to invest our time and energy into that programme so that we can bring the Academy's learning to a much wider audience.”

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