Mastercard on the ‘existential crisis’ facing CMOs and how it can be fixed

Mastercard CMO Raja Rajamannar warns that too few marketers have both creative and financial experience, leading to them being replaced by chief revenue or growth officers.


Mastercard’s chief marketing and communications officer Raja Rajamannar is worried. And it is no small thing he’s concerned about. What keeps him awake at night is what he terms “the existential crisis of the CMO” and what Mastercard and the industry more generally can do to fix it.

The existential crisis, Rajamannar believes, has been caused by the democratisation of tools and techniques – whether that is data, artificial intelligence, augmented reality or digital marketing. And that means small and large companies can compete on an almost level playing field.

He explains: “The small companies are able to effectively compete against the large companies, which is brilliant, it puts everyone on their toes and innovation grows in leaps and bounds. But that puts a lot of pressure on the big companies because the competition is a lot more intense.

“Large companies, and particularly CEOs and CFOs, are saying, ‘we are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on marketing, what am I getting in return?’.”

The issue is that marketers’ response to that question isn’t good enough. They might tell the CEO that brand awareness or consideration have gone up, but that isn’t what a chief executive wants to know. He wants to understand what marketing investment is doing to financial results. And that is an area too few marketers understand, according to Rajamannar.

“Because many CMOs have risen through the creative route, much more than the financial route, they are like a rabbit caught in the headlights. They talk about jargon and marketing KPIs, which the CFO and CEO could care less about – they are looking for financial results. Is customer growth happening, is my profitability increasing, what is marketing doing to my EBITDA?

“In that scenario, some companies are losing patience and replacing CMOs with a chief revenue or chief growth officer. Some are not even from a marketing background. When that happens at several companies, that is an existential crisis,” he warns.

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To address the problem, Rajamannar believes marketers need to start talking like business managers rather than functional specialists. He has spent half his career managing marketing and the other half managing P&Ls and businesses, meaning he has been on “both sides of the aisle” and can talk in the language of the CEO and CFO. He suggests that will become increasingly important if marketers are to progress and marketing is to continue playing a key role in business success.

Some companies are losing patience and replacing CMOs with a chief revenue or chief growth officer. When that happens at several companies, that is an existential crisis.

Raja Rajamannar, Mastercard

“Many CMOs have bigger budgets than the CTOs, so unless you understand and know technology how are you going to manage it? You need to understand data because it is proving to be such a crucial part of market, if you’re not number savvy again that’s an issue,” he explains.

“[Marketeres] need to be digitally savvy, technologically savvy, data savvy, business savvy. In a sense you are not looking for a marketer anymore, you are looking for a general manager with a strong grounding, experience and understanding of marketing. That’s the kind of step change that is happening, and there are not too many of that breed available.”

Preparing the next generation of CMOs

Rajamannar believes the problem is that most marketers fall into one of two groups: they are either classically-trained and understand the 4Ps, consumer psychology and insight but lack knowledge on data and digital, or they are data-driven and digitally savvy but have a “shabby” understanding of the foundational principles of marketing.

However, what marketing needs is people with both these knowledge sets. And so Mastercard is cross-training people and offering reverse mentoring.

That has involved creating a study programme that allows marketers to pick areas where they feel they need more knowledge and receive training (and certification) in that subject. It also offers job rotation, so that it “gets well-rounded people”.

Mastercard CMO Raja Rajamannar
Mastercard’s Raja Rajamannar has university professors shadow him so they can better understand the role of the CMO

Mastercard is also thinking about how it trains up the next generation of marketers. To that end, it is working with colleges to modify their curriculum so it is more relevant. For example, Mastercard provides case studies to universities including Harvard Business School, Yale School of Management and Singapore Management University, and Rajamannar has professors shadow him for a couple of weeks at a time so they can ask questions and better understand the current CMO role.

It is also starting a programme under which it takes “the best and brightest interns available”, and puts them on projects that “actually have some significance”.

“Typically, when you have an intern they are relegated to projects that are less consequential – doing competitive analysis, stuff like that,” says Rajamannar. “What we are doing is giving them significant projects that are real and have implications.”

Developing new marketing talent

For those starting out in marketing, Rajamannar no longer believes it is necessary to get a grounding at a consumer-packaged goods company as he did. Instead, he says, young marketers should look to get a variety of experience so they become well-rounded.

“You can start anywhere, it doesn’t matter. But if I must advise a young person I would say you have to understand the latest and the best, have that learning curiosity, and make sure you go through rotations whether that is with one company or multiple companies, even if it’s one company with multiple departments.

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“You have to go and target for experiences that will enrich and make for a better, well-rounded marketer and general manager. You have to be very deliberate, ” he concludes.

“And pick up mentors that don’t belong to your company. I mentor a few folks that have an aspiration to have a brilliant career in marketing and who want to ask for advice, guidance and thoughts, and I’m really happy to share. Most CMOs you’ll find will be very happy to help.”