Are we witnessing the end of the CMO? No, and stop asking

Marketers should cease pontificating about the validity of CMOs and their time in post, and start focusing on how to do the job better.

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My New Year’s resolution was to avoid reading the US business press because its marketing coverage is so hyper-real and crap it defies belief. But I was fiddling with my phone yesterday when – whammo! – I stumbled onto Fortune’s website and a downpour of cliched horseshit soiled me almost immediately, despite my best efforts to find a back button and retreat before it was too late.

The specific article is one you have read before, multiple times. It explored the exit of several notable CMOs at places like UPS, Etsy and Walgreens and then went on to suggest these departures and the subsequent removal of the CMO role at the companies in question was evidence of “the fading of marketing’s prominence as an autonomous C-suite discipline”.

If we wanted evidence of the inherent horseshittery in Tuesday’s Fortune article look no further than the column Forbes published the next day. It claimed CEOs are apparently “gaining new confidence in their chief marketing officers”. A new survey has just confirmed that CMOs are regarded in the top tier along with CFOs and COOs. And everything looks rosy for marketers and marketing on the top floor.

So, which is it? Are companies losing faith in marketing and CMOs? Or gaining it? Is the CMO role on the way out? Or back in?

Here’s an unpopular perspective: how about neither? This obsession with the CMO role is indicative of fuck all. For as long as I have worked in marketing, the whole topic has been flapping back and forth like a ‘vacant’ sign in the wind. So allow me the chance to write the definitive and ideally final column on the subject. One that can be used, ad infinitum, to stop this nonsense from dirtying the door of marketing ever again.

The end of the CMO?

First, the firing of a CMO tells us nothing about anything in general. It tells us that the person in question probably wasn’t very good at their job. That’s usually the reason people get the chop. When a barista gets fired, it’s because he or she makes shit coffee or was not washing their hands properly. It’s not a signal that coffee is going out of fashion and we need to consider kombucha or milkshakes as an imminent replacement.

Second, when companies pull the CMO role, it’s not a further omen of marketing’s imminent demise. It means the company does not know what to do yet. It could be the prior incumbent was so fucking useless that they made the company question not only the value of that person but the whole premise of marketing. Or maybe the company in question just needs a bit of time to restructure things at the top and find a new senior marketer. Either way, it does not spell The End of Marketing. As. We. Know. It.

You don’t need to make the case for a CMO at your organisation, you just need a sleeping bag and plenty of patience.

Indeed, companies usually reinstall the CMO role and recruit again after a short period without the position. Most just needed time to heal and forget whatever they used to think two or three quarters earlier. In 2019, McDonald’s sparked a frenzy of frothy nonsense when it scrapped its CMO position. Apparently, the role risked “becoming outdated next year”, CNBC predicted on the back of the shock announcement. But quicker than you can say “CNBC is also full of shit”, McDonald’s reinstated the role and put Morgan Flatley in charge.

Anyone with chops can tell you that every big business is fundamentally cyclical in its operations and appointments. Companies decide to centralise everything globally. Three years later they realise they need regional centres to help focus things. Four years after that they have gone full-circle and a new CEO is pushing their vision of localisation for each country. It’s the same story with senior marketing roles. They come. They go. You don’t need to make the case for a CMO at your organisation, you just need a sleeping bag and plenty of patience.

CMO tenure

Let’s also sort out that pointless meme about ‘CMO tenure’. Is there a more cliched or ridiculous subject in all of marketing? Every hack marketer on every shithouse roundtable at every pointless conference has – at some point – cited CMO tenure as the explanatory factor behind everything from an over-investment in performance marketing to the fate of in-house marketing departments. Utter bollocks.

Despite what some numpty told you last year from a stage somewhere, CMO tenures are not that short. The average Fortune 500 CMO spends 4.3 years in the job. Brian Clough needed less time to take Nottingham Forest from the middle of the Second Division to European champions. Elon Musk will soon be able to get you to Mars (and back) in half the time. And it took significantly less for the Allies to defeat the Kaiser and restore world order. Getting a brand on track and selecting a new ad agency suddenly seems doable in four years when you think about it in those terms.

And let me remind you this is the average tenure. Averages are notoriously fallible measures of anything. The average marketer has one testicle, for example. What does that tell you?

Sometimes longer tenure simply enables marketers to become even more useless for even longer.

The mistake that sites like Forbes, Fortune and CNBC make is to portray CMOs as some kind of uniform tribe of special humans who all share a consistent set of skills and abilities. When one of them, never mind three, gets fired it must mean marketing is under attack!

More likely it just signals that some marketers weren’t up to it because – whisper it quietly – a lot of CMOs aren’t very good. They got to the top of the ladder by being smart or political or lucky or photogenic or having a boss that also does not understand marketing or any of the other reasons that explain why such a large proportion of senior marketers aren’t any good at marketing. Or being senior. Have a cold beer with the right people in the marketing community in Mayfair or Manhattan. It’s common knowledge who the current crop of senior marketers are and which of them are truly great marketers, and which of them aren’t.

Hidden within that 4.3-year average tenure are useless marketers who could not find their ass with either hand and, in binominal contrast, a posse of amazing marketers who very often stuck it out for way longer. The legendary Syl Saller spent seven triumphant years at Diageo as CMO. And I am sure she won’t mind me revealing the secret to her extended tenure and her ability to break the 4.3-year barrier. Namely, her uncanny ability to know what the fuck she was doing. And getting on with it.

There are brands where the CMO has been in post five years, yet almost every key metric appears to be going backwards. Volumes. Profit. Brand Equity. Morale. The only thing going up is CMO tenure. Sometimes longer tenure simply enables marketers to become even more useless for even longer.

It works in reverse too. Pete Markey is literally the best CMO in Britain at the moment. He only lasted three years and eight months at TSB. The reason for his shortfall? He was so fucking good Boots gobbled him all up for its vacant CMO position. Average tenure tells you nothing and explains bugger all.

The CMO title

And before I go, let’s demolish all that cock about titles too. Somewhere on LinkedIn right now some hopeless pedant is penning a ‘thought piece’ about why the title ‘chief marketing officer’ needs to change to ‘chief customer officer’. Or ‘chief growth officer’. Or ‘chief fuck-me-backwards-can-we-please-stop-doing-this-nonsense officer’.

Can no one else see the inanity of this discussion? Or what it says about the utter uselessness of the people involved in it? Or the imbecility of a marketing discipline that worries about this kind of stuff? Look across at the parallel world of finance. If anyone even tried to start a conversation about whether ‘chief finance officer’ was the right title, they would be immediately ejected from the 43rd-floor executive office via the nearest window.

“We need to change the title of CFO to head fiscal person,” said no-one ever from finance.

Whether you are the chief marketing officer or the head client wrangler, it really is all superficial wank and gets in the way of the more important questions. Are you in charge? Do you know what you are doing? Can you please go and get on with it?

I might just be able to save us all hundreds of painful, pointless hours of future CMO discussion bullshit. Please see my helpful Cut-Out & Keep CMO Answer Grid below. Put it in your wallet or purse. Should you find yourself at a conference where these topics come up, or are approached by a colleague wanting to debate them over a pint, pull it out and staple it to them and then walk swiftly away.

You are welcome.

Mark Ritson is five times winner of the PPA Columnist of the Year award and currently the British Society of Magazine Editors Business Columnist of the Year. A former marketing professor, he now runs his wildly successful Mini MBA in Marketing.