CEOs Have Obligations To CMOs Too, And They’re Critical For Mutual Success


On Marketing, Contributor

December 25, 2014

This article is by Mark Stevens, CEO of MSCO and author of “Your Marketing Sucks.”

Let’s stop and think about Starbucks for a moment. Not for the usual reasons we think about the coffee juggernaut, but for a rather shadowy issue that lies in the background but has significant implications for the universe of CMOs and the CEOs to whom they report.

When a dynamic leader, especially an entrepreneur, is at the helm–and that person (in this case Howard Schultz)– is the one with the big vision and also serves as the face of the company, the CMO tends to get lost in the shuffle. A fact that Schultz knows all too well, as he started his Starbucks’ career as its marketing manager.  (Starbucks’ CMO, of course, is Sharon Rothstein.)

We all know the obligations CMOs have to their CEOs, but what about the reverse? Does a charismatic leader with marketing savvy running through her DNA step back from the limelight and give the CMO the opportunity to paint his picture for the company’s future before customers, suppliers, partners and Wall Street?

The issue presents a quandary of sorts, because the Elon Musks of the world have no interest in playing footsie with political correctness or the etiquette of corporate fair play. In fact, they rarely play to be fair–they are all in to win. They are also outsized, brassy, colorful and delighted to weave their stories about the company’s marketing. Just recently, I heard Schultz wax poetic about his new initiative for playful Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room stores based on his fascination with Willy Wonka. The boss was claiming the bragging rights to that one, leaving many wondering what the CMO does. Execute orders from the dreamer-in-chief? Manage agencies? Oversee budgets?

I’m not one for game-playing or treating a business as a democracy, per se, but I do believe that the CEO has certain responsibilities to the CMO, and that the CMO must be an agent for their own voice and position of authority in the business. This is actually more important for the CMO than the other members of the C-suite. Why? Because the CFO, CIO, COO and the chief legal officer tend to bring more natural weight to the table. Not because they are smarter or wiser or in any way higher on the talent curve, but because the CEO rarely thinks of usurping their roles. The CMO is easier to overshadow. And in some cases, to overlook. Even to marginalize.

So what does the CEO owe the CMO?

Respect for their contribution to the business. If the respect isn’t there, the CEO should ask himself if that is based on the CMO’s capabilities or the former’s failure to give the latter running room to shine. (Naturally, as the CMOs also read the tea leaves on this one, they need to decide on their prospects for remaining with the company.)

The opportunity to develop an innovative, perhaps experimental and risky project of their own. This says that “While I am inventing a new way to sell cars, you can go off and bring me a dream project of your own. Perhaps a novel way to market the services business.”

This is a perfect case in point that illustrates the CMO’s need to have that sense of personal agency. Rather than asking for the runway to create something new on his own, he needs to take the initiative, present the plan and fight for it. If the idea is dismissed simply because it was the CMO’s (no one will admit that, but the handwriting is always on the wall), the CMO needs to dust off his resume or accept a life lost in the shadows forever.

View the CMO as a key advisor whose thoughts and ideas are critical to one-plus-one-equals-three thinking. The fact is, the CMO role is truly more important than the other positions at the top of the company. Yes, legal, finance and operations are important, but marketing stands alone in the opportunity to drive growth, profitability and market share.

As the CEO seeks to grow the business, it is the CMO who should stand by his side.

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