The big debate: Is CMO succession in crisis?

With brands increasingly looking to external candidates to fill CMO vacancies, how many marketers are waiting for a promotion that will never come and how can they ensure they don’t get left on the shelf?

How can marketers ensure they don’t get left on the shelf?

When appointing a new marketing leader, boards and CEOs must weigh up whether the skills they need exist within the current team or whether they should hire an external recruit who embodies the evolving CMO skillset.

When it comes to the crunch, external hires are growing in popularity. During the first half of 2017, 72% of publicly reported CMO appointments were external candidates, up from 64% during the same period in 2016, according to research by Russell Reynolds Associates.

The executive search firm recorded 187 marketing leadership appointments over a six-month period, the highest number for the past five years.

The tech industry registered the highest volume of marketing moves (19%), followed by apparel and retail (15%), leisure and hospitality (15%) and consumer digital and media (13%). Looking specifically at the leisure and hospitality sector, fast-food restaurants accounted for 57% of all appointments during the first six months of 2017.

Some 89% of marketing appointments made in the tech sector were external candidates, the highest of any sector, followed by healthcare (82%) and education/non-profit (80%).

READ MORE: Brands failing to promote CMOs from within

According to Richard Sanderson, executive director of marketing, consumer and retail at Russell Reynolds, this reflects the fact tech businesses are on an accelerated growth curve, meaning they quickly reach different stages of maturity that require different leadership skills.

People should be careful about moving just for a title, because in a way it’s career vanity.

Kenny Jacobs, Ryanair

“In the very early stages [of a company] we see marketers that look a lot like product marketers, then as growth starts to accelerate within tech businesses we see more channel-based marketers who have a strong focus on demand generation or revenue optimisation,” Sanderson explains.

“Then at later stages of their growth, appointments in tech organisations seem to be more about narrative storytelling and brand experience, so you often see more brand-centric marketing leaders take on these CMO roles.”

Bridging the experience gap

The rapidly evolving nature of marketing is exerting real pressure on the talent pipeline, meaning today’s CMOs need to be fully rounded individuals and not the channel specialists of the past, says Sanderson.

It is often the gap in experience between the CMO and their second in command that prevents the internal team from being the natural choice for promotion. For this reason, promoting from within can actually pose more of a risk, says Evans Cycles’ marketing director James Backhouse.

“Outside huge companies, marketing teams are not that big. If you have a relatively large gap in seniority between the CMO or marketing director and the rest of the team, then someone will have to make a really big step up,” he says.

“You have the CMO and then you might have people who are channel specialists and so there’s not an obvious succession, and therefore if you want someone else as senior then you have to go external and it’s almost a bit less of a risk if they’ve done the CMO job elsewhere,” he adds.

Another factor often standing in the way of internal promotion is the perception that the existing team is too aligned to the previous CMO, especially when the board or CEO are looking for a change of direction.

Companies often recruit from outside for this reason, though Ryanair CMO Kenny Jacobs believes this can prove to be a costly mistake if the newly-appointed CMO does not work out and they end up hiring the best internal person anyway.

“You might have the CEO and chairman saying we need this man or woman from this particular company and they overlook internal people, because they want to be seen to hire someone who is in the place they want to take their company to, and often that doesn’t work out,” Jacobs explains.

“The company then loses its second, third, fourth or fifth best marketers, who move on because they didn’t get the job, and then two years later the person who was sixth best suddenly becomes CMO because they were still there.”

Jacobs’ advice to companies is not to automatically opt for a well-known person from the outside as they could be ignoring some real gems one level down.

READ MORE: Brands don’t need to be loved to win over consumers, says Ryanair CMO

This is an opinion shared by Francesca Davies, who was promoted to Weetabix marketing director in July. Davies has a track record of internal promotion since joining the company in 2008 as senior brand manager. Within a year she became group brand manager, moving on to head of brand in 2011 and group head of category in 2014.

“Weetabix is pretty special. We work hard to grow talent from within. We have designed the organisation and nurtured the right culture that allows people to have the appropriate levels of vision, challenge and support to excel,” Davies explains.

“The flat and nimble organisational design that we have here means everyone, especially marketers, gets the opportunity to really affect things, building breadth and depth of experience from the get-go.”

The average retention rate at Weetabix is growing, due in part to the business’s focus on rewarding talent with autonomy across all elements of the marketing mix, including commercial profit-and-loss ownership, strategic brand building, communications planning, shaping creative propositions and end-to-end marketing.

Davies is not the only marketer to benefit from internal progression within Weetabix. She cites former group marketing director – now managing director – Sally Abbott; and Claire Canty, who recently made the move to head of innovation following a series of senior brand manager roles.

READ MORE: From marketing director to MD – Weetabix’s Sally Abbott on ‘failing forward’ and driving growth

Resist job title obsession

A factor encouraging marketers to consider leaving their company for a role in a new business or sector is the time it takes to be appointed CMO. Russell Reynolds’ research finds that for internal appointments marketers have to wait on average 7.3 years to be promoted to CMO from the next most senior role.

Jacobs calls on marketers to be patient and accept that they can learn a lot about leadership without necessarily being promoted.

“In marketing there’s a lot of people who say ‘I have been doing this job for two years and I haven’t been promoted, what’s wrong?’ I’m saying this as a 43-year-old, but there are probably times in my career where I wish I had waited [instead of changing jobs],” says Jacobs.

He sees an obsession among marketers with attaining their first marketing director or CMO role, which encourages them to change industry or move into the wrong organisation just for the title.

“I’ve seen a lot of people make the move because they just want that title, even if they’re not that interested in the sector or the business and they don’t enjoy the job that much. Whether you are CMO, CTO or COO people should be careful about moving just for a title, because in a way it’s career vanity,” Jacobs adds.

TSB marketing director Pete Markey agrees that often job titles are misleading and can mean different things to different businesses.

“When I worked at the Post Office I was CMO with a team of 50 people and a budget of about £30-40m. Then I went to Aviva, took on the role of brand and marketing director, and I had a team of 150 people and a budget three times that amount,” Markey explains.

“So I went from having a job that was called CMO to a job that wasn’t, but was in fact three times the size.”

If you want a business to not look outside and look at you as the next in line, be visible and demonstrate what you can do.

Pete Markey, TSB

Increasingly marketers are subverting the traditional route to leadership on their way to the top. Of the 21% of marketers who were internally promoted during the first six months of 2017, 25% took on a more senior role outside marketing such as CEO, president or general manager.

A further 34% were appointed to a newly-created marketing role such as chief brand or customer officer.

Atom Bank CMO, Lisa Wood, believes that getting general management or operational experience under your belt adds a different dimension to a marketer’s skillset.

“People sometimes think the next step in their career is one rung up the ladder in terms of the hierarchy of the organisation, but I don’t think it works like that anymore,” says Wood.

“You have to think ‘have I got a broad enough range of skills behind me from a CV perspective to allow me to step into that bigger role?’ That’s the way people should be thinking about it.”

READ MORE: Anatomy of a Leader – the practical skills you need to get to the top

Markey agrees that it is good for marketers to be seen as commercial and driving business performance by moving into general management, as long as the move is made for the right reasons.

“I don’t think it hurts at all to go into general management, but I’d hate to think people became disillusioned and wandered off into something else. I think we need to be quite deliberate in helping people so the choice is made to advance someone’s career, not just because it’s the last option left.”

Moving to grow

The pace of change is encouraging marketers to move into unchartered waters in search of professional development, rather than waiting for an internal promotion.

This was the case when Lisa Wood left her role as head of marketing at First Direct in 2014, after 23 years at owner HSBC, to become CMO at startup Atom Bank, which customers access solely through a mobile app. The new job was particularly attractive because it allowed Wood to move further into the tech space and acquire skills she believes she would never have learned staying at HSBC.

“I knew my learning curve would be quite steep and that was highly attractive to me,” she explains. “Marketing is evolving in a very rapid way, so you have to push yourself and that’s the only way you’re going to be able to move on with your career and get better roles. That does take a leap of faith and that’s absolutely critical from a CMO perspective.”

Reflecting on her career Annabel Venner, Hiscox global brand director and CMO of its subsidiary DirectAsia, has always moved companies in search of new challenges, which at times has meant moving into a different industry or role in order to build new skills.

READ MORE: From biscuits to insurance – the value of gaining experience across sectors

“Compared to Coke where I was doing FMCG, which was a very purist consumer-focused environment where I got the opportunity to focus on doing a lot of high profile advertising campaigns, Hiscox is a very different model, but I have digital skills and skills in other areas I would not have got from Coke,” she explains.

“It was a different sector, plus an opportunity to drive new skills. I think that’s why some marketers are doing it, so it’s a personal decision and it’s not necessarily around the promotion. I think part of it is driven by people not wanting to be pigeonholed.”

Ryanair’s Jacobs says most senior marketers making a move are opting for digital roles in a bid to futureproof their careers.

“When I talk to marketers in senior traditional marketing roles where they don’t have a decent chunk of digital, or digital is separate, there’s a bit of a scramble by the marketers to get into digital before it’s too late,” he says.

Weetabix’s Davies, however, believes if businesses create a dynamic marketing environment they will be able to retain staff who may have looked elsewhere to grow their skills.

“The difference in my opinion is the accountability Weetabix gives you, so you can stamp your mark on transformational change if you’re up for it. The second difference is the level of dynamism from a company like Weetabix,” she says.

“Who would have thought when I joined Weetabix in 2008 that in just over five years I’d have the opportunity to be launching a new sub category where people were drinking their breakfast from a bottle? Now this is a £20 million business for us where we have an 80% share of that market.”

Fixing the succession problem

So is the industry facing a succession crisis or are marketers just finding new ways to advance their careers?

Evans Cycles’ James Backhouse believes that if marketers find themselves waiting for a promotion it is within their power to change the situation.

“I don’t think it’s an issue. It’s life and it’s good that people stay in their jobs for a long time. I don’t believe you can really do a fantastic job in a marketing business unless you understand it,” says Backhouse.

“If they aren’t getting promoted internally then either they’re brilliant and the person who is doing the promoting doesn’t understand them, in which case they should leave the business, or they’re not good enough and they should go and get the skills they need,” he adds.

If you are ambitious and hit a ceiling, or feel like you are treading water, it is time to move on, says Markey. He advises marketers to get off their seats, rip up their job descriptions and get involved with other parts of the business.

People sometimes think the next step in their career is one rung up the ladder in terms of the hierarchy of the organisation, but I don’t think it works like that anymore.

Lisa Wood, Atom Bank

“I do think there’s a slight element where laziness can creep in. The CMO leaves and the next couple of people in line think ‘it’s our turn next’, but their exposure might not be very good,” says Markey.

“It’s not about shameless self-promotion, it’s about backing the project and being visible where the businesses needs you. If you want a business to not look outside and look at you as the next in line, be visible and demonstrate what you can do.”

Regardless of the stresses and strains of being a CMO, Lisa Wood believes marketing leaders have a responsibility to their teams to spot people within the business who have the capability to stretch into bigger roles and then actively develop them.

Venner agrees that leaders should expose their team to projects that enhance their skillsets or help make them more prominent within the business. Although sometimes this can mean having difficult conversations.

“Ultimately people need to have conversations with their teams if they believe they’ve reached as far as they can go in the business, and you need bravery and courage to do that,” she says.

“I think it’s wrong if somebody is very ambitious and constantly wanting a new job and a promotion, and the general feeling is they’re not going to get it. You need to be honest with them.”

It is important to recognise that not every marketer wants to become a CMO or CEO, and not all decisions to move roles are purely motivated by the lure of promotion. The appeal of working in a different industry and developing a suite of new skills is proving far more attractive to some marketers keen to define their own career trajectory.