Want to improve trust with your CEO? Find your marketing code

Getting the top job in marketing is no guarantee of success. Understanding how to influence, educate and lead the leadership once you’re there is vital, so communication and transparency are key.

As a fledgling marketer starting out, I always dreamed of one day getting a company’s top job in marketing, coming up with the strategy, making the decisions, spending the budget.

Eventually I managed it. I became the marketing leader at Innocent Drinks, then Mars and Zoopla. I was moving up in the marketing world. Then I became CMO for McDonald’s in the UK and Ireland, and as I sat behind my desk I could finally say ‘I’m lovin’ it’.

A few months later and my job was gone. This top job was not quite what I had thought. What a shock. What had made me effective and successful in one leadership position and less so now?

On a simplistic level I could explain my job loss by pointing to the re-organisation of the global and local marketing function. It was a plausible narrative that explained my relatively short tenure, but I knew at a more objective level there was far more going on.

I may have ticked the boxes of a year-end review but had not built enough of a connection with the UK CEO and leadership team. My value was not evident to all, and I was vulnerable. It was frustrating. I did not want this to happen again, so I started to consolidate the lessons I had learned. The lessons every marketer who aspires to have a leadership position could learn from.

Great marketing gets marketers into this top marketing job, but it is great leadership and influence that keeps them there.

I reflected on my experiences, read around the subject and talked to peers. There was a lot explaining the challenges marketing leaders face. Writing in Harvard Business Review, Kimberly Whitler summarised an underlying issue:

“Something is going very wrong in the relationship between CEOs and CMOs… 80% of CEOs don’t trust or are unimpressed by their CMO. In comparison, just 10% of the same CEOs feel the same way about their CFOs and CIOs.”

There have been several studies, notably from The Marketing Society and recruiter Spencer Stuart that have shown the tenure for top marketers is now just over three years, the lowest of the entire leadership team. Many of my peers have experienced this first hand. Marketing leadership jobs are volatile, and no psychometric pre-assessment or interview can really assess how you will fit in with the leadership team.

What a terrible waste of time and effort for everyone involved if so many marketing leaders are victims of this churn and aren’t trusted by their CEO. This isn’t good for anyone. It shouldn’t and doesn’t need to be like this.

CMO tenure falls to lowest level in more than a decade

A bigger problem

Losing my job was part of a wider problem, and one where no guidebooks or advice services exist. Most senior marketers dust themselves down and go again in a new role. I was the same after McDonald’s. But I also decided to pick apart my experiences and those of my peers and wider industry experts to create a framework for success.

Two years later let me introduce ‘The Marketing Leader’s Code’, an attempt at explaining the challenges marketing leaders face, a capability structure and guidance on how problems can be overcome.

The Marketing Leader’s Code organises success factors into a code made up of four essential genres: Connector, operator, disruptor and explorer (CODE). Each genre is further divided into three ANCHOR factors, where anchor is an acronym for pairs of essential marketing leadership capabilities and behaviours the marketer needs to deliver.

Every marketing role and every leadership team is different, so the blend of anchor factors needed is different, which changes the code and ultimately success in the role. The code also starts to demystify the differences between the chief marketing officer, chief digital officer, chief growth officer, chief customer officer, chief brand officer and chief strategy officer. Each of these roles have different weights of anchor factors and knowing this can help the CEO or leadership team decide what type of marketer they really need.

As marketers we can arrogantly think CEOs or the wider leadership team understand the differences, but in reality, very few do. Most CEOs invariably come from a finance or operations background, so their appreciation of marketing can be low.

No other leadership role after all has experienced so much change in the last 10 years. From the growth and expansion of marketing channels and customer journeys to the explosion in the volume of customer, the complexities of the role have uncreased but has not been matched by appreciation of the leadership team. And that can lead to a breakdown in trust.

The right fit

One solution is better matching jobs and capability, so the applicant and the role’s anchor factors are better understood and aligned. Job descriptions from headhunters can be full of marketing buzzwords, which make the role sound thrilling, but in reality the role is often ill-defined.

The leadership team know they want something different, but it is not clear in the job description what they really need, and some foundational aspects of the role are missed. This can lead to the wrong marketer joining, which can be a disaster for the marketer and company.

At the same time marketers need to take time to carefully influence, educate and lead the leadership team more. This means becoming bi-lingual, with a marketing language for use with your marketing teams and agencies, and a business language for your leadership team. Great marketing gets marketers into this top marketing job, but it is great leadership and influence that keeps them there.

When this works the magic can start. At MoneySuperMarket, the CEO had enough confidence in marketing to let the ‘Epic Strut’ be created without seeing the ad or storyboard once. At Checkatrade, time taken with the CFO meant he became a key supporter of marketing, protecting brand budgets and whole heartedly pushing for strategies we were promoting, while at Zoopla the CCO ditched traditional marketing campaigns for new proximity marketing campaigns to drive cross-sale of a series of B2B bolt on acquisitions.

Marketers don’t need to contribute to the churn statistic. Indeed, they can flourish in the top job. The crux of this is better communication and transparency with the leadership team.

This is an extract adapted for Marketing Week from Gareth Helm’s book, The Marketing Leader’s Code.