If marketing were a brand, you would fire the CMO

Want to lure the world’s best talent into marketing? You need to step up the profession’s standing first.


Dear chief marketing officers, the marketing brand isn’t doing well. Latest news: you are losing market share in a key target group – talent. A survey by Marketing Week and Unidays earlier this year found that only 2% of UK students believe a marketing degree will lead to the best career for them. And don’t bother turning around, there’s no profession behind you that’s rated lower. In a competitive market, at 2% a brand would normally be taken off the shelf.

Unfortunately, your other target group, the C-suite, isn’t going to save you. Over half of all board members don’t believe marketing drives revenue. The CEOs of Coke, Hyatt, and Tyson Foods have already replaced their top marketers with chief growth officers or chief commercial officers. And in the US, CMO tenure is nearing its all-time low.

John Hoffmire, associate fellow at Oxford’s Saïd Business School, explained in almost apocalyptic terms in 2016 why few marketers are invited onto company boards: “They aren’t needed because they often don’t contribute the same types of value that others – from finance, strategy and operations – contribute.”

The marketing profession needs a relaunch that will revitalise the profession’s standing both inside the C-suite and with talent.

So who does that leave in your corner? You guessed it, your agencies. At no marketing conference in this world will you publicly hear about these issues. Instead, at agency-funded parties, the industry celebrates its (former) glory. And with tech firm cash joining the crowd, more champagne than ever fills the glasses on this particular sinking ship.

Marketing’s reputation may be on the line, but marketers still have big budgets to spend. Want a top up?

If marketing were a brand, you would fire the CMO. The marketing profession needs an urgent relaunch; a relaunch that will revitalise the profession’s standing both inside the C-suite and with talent. And, like all turnarounds, this relaunch will require top marketers to make painful decisions.

READ MORE: How the marketing industry is coming together to inspire the next generation

Make marketing relevant again

Marketing needs a much higher aspiration – the aspiration to be the central function. The function that steers the firm’s strategy based on customer needs. The function that shapes the top revenue- and profit-driving programmes. The CEO’s right hand.

This higher aspiration for marketing isn’t new – it’s what management thinker Peter Drucker demanded all along. It’s also logical. If marketers could truly deliver profitable growth, CEOs would ignore the naysayers. They would hire top marketers and give them exalted positions.

The problem is that too many marketers busy themselves with stuff that doesn’t drive the bottom line. Fun fact: Marketing Week’s survey asked kids what marketers do and 40% said they work with media and celebrities. To the horror of many C-suite executives, that’s what many marketers find attractive, too.

To become the central function, the CEO’s goal of profitable revenue must become the undisputed marketing goal. Every top marketer needs a clear perspective on the company’s strategy (not brand strategy) based on industry trends, financial performance, value creation, technology, shareholder expectations, etc.

CMOs know what customers want now. That makes a clever CMO a powerful sparring partner for the CEO. The door is wide open.

Aiming higher will also catapult more marketers to the firm’s top role. Each year, The Marketing Academy, McKinsey and I work with a selected group of CMOs on their way to CEO. Our research says it loud and clear: leader profiles of top CMOs and CEOs are very similar. If top marketers do their job well, the step to CEO is a small one indeed.

Top talent aims high. Today, just 13% of students say marketing will help them on their way to CEO, according to Marketing Week’s research. A stronger C-suite standing will ultimately give marketers more ammunition in the war for talent.

READ MORE: Russell Parsons – We need your help to avoid a future recruitment crisis

Shaping real marketers

Despite all the academic buzz, marketing is an applied science. You can’t learn all marketing at a university. But you can’t ‘just do it’, either. Influencing customer behaviour is complicated. The best marketers know the proven principles, have hands-on experience, and know how to lead.

Unfortunately, the marketing profession fails to build rounded leaders. Instead, it produces MBA marketers and Gary Vaynerchuk-style marketers, and neither will lift the profession’s standing.

MBA marketers spend years soaking up granular marketing skills. Joining a company often produces culture shock. In real life, people don’t always seem to care for the best answer. All of a sudden, it’s about convincing stakeholders. About fighting for resources. About quick fixes.

My research with Patrick Barwise for our book The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader shows technical marketing skills matter. But it’s leadership skills that explain over 50% of marketers’ success. Yet, universities keep producing marketing eggheads instead of business leaders.

The Vaynerchuk-style marketer presents a different problem. After hearing that training is irrelevant, the marketer – equipped with mostly tactical social media skills – joins a firm, often in a support role like content management. As these marketers climb the ranks, they need to increasingly wing it as they go along. It’s hard to set prices if you’ve never done a conjoint analysis.

Marketing needs a much higher aspiration – the aspiration to be the central function.

These marketers also overestimate their skills’ long-term value. The Financial Times found that, yes, employers value social media skills (that drive revenue). But once social media matures, these skills will fall back into the category that employers today put among the least important: ‘specialised marketing skills’.

Just imagine if we trained doctors as we train marketers. That is, we either just teach them theory, or we don’t require any training as long as they are talented in, say, giving injections.

You would probably say, ‘That’s a crazy thought.’ After all, great doctors both adhere to proven standards and use their experience to treat patients. Why, then, are sloppy training standards OK in marketing, a firm’s most important function? The role that often determines company survival?

The leaders of the marketing profession need to formulate a completely new training approach – an integrated marketing education, combining rigorous university teaching with on-the-job training. This way, students learn the key principles, gain experience, and bring reality back into the classroom – just like doctors do.

Here’s my wish: I’d love for 10 world-leading CMOs to get together with 10 world-leading marketing universities to shape a new marketing curriculum. One that will match the rigour and standards of medical training. One that would produce CMO role models with high aspirations. One that would bring about the sea change required to make marketing a talent magnet again.

Thomas Barta is a marketing leadership expert, speaker and the co-author of ‘The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader’. He has teamed up with Marketing Week to launch the Marketing Leadership Masterclass, a new CPD-accredited online course designed to equip marketers with everything they need to become a better leader. To find out more and book your place visit leadership.marketingweek.com