Why CMOs Will Be the Most Important Executives in 2018

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For the last two decades of my career, I’ve peppered every executive recruiter I meet with the same question: “For which position are you experiencing the greatest imbalance between the demand for exceptional candidates and the supply?”

The responses are usually consistent and vary among sales, operations, and finance, but I keep asking because the replies accurately reveal where we are in the business cycle. For example, if the most common reply is sales, it signals the business climate is choppy and unpredictable, and companies crave experienced sales leadership who can close taut customer opportunities.

Starting 24 months ago, however, everything changed.

This is the first time all the headhunters have given the same answer. It’s also the first time the answer is completely dissociated from the current business cycle.  Finally, now is the only moment since I began accosting unsuspecting recruiters that they confide CMOs are the most challenging roles to fill.

Why, for the first time in the century or so since modern marketing began, are fantastic CMOs in such high demand, yet so difficult to find? Have MBA programs stopped minting marketing majors?  Has the job stopped paying enough? Given the average CMO tenure has shrunk to a mere 26 months, are marketers fleeing to finance and operations positions?

Some forensics on modern CMO job requirements illuminate what’s happening. First, consumers are experiencing unprecedented transparency regarding the origin, manufacturing circumstances, competitive alternatives, and character of their products’ suppliers.  As a result, the distinctions among brand, product, and customer experience have become almost indistinguishable from one another.  This fusion means that the CMO’s span of interest and influence has broadened.

Despite this expansion, however, the advent of new digital tools has segmented interactions between companies and consumers into multitudinous direct, intimate, and immediate episodes.  So, while the job may have swelled into a more holistic engagement with customers, it’s also fractured into tiny, discrete pieces. It’s become bigger and smaller simultaneously.

To today’s consumer, products and brands are plaited into a single entity. Thus, a company’s “product” now encompasses a consumer’s brand perception, interaction with its products, and affinity for its communities. Consider Lyft.  Riders use Lyft to travel from one place to another; the ride theoretically is the product.  However, the customer’s attachment isn’t with a journey, a driver or a car, but with the tool that enabled those things and the company that built the tool.

Lyft’s product in this case includes the app and the entire experience it represents—speed, convenience, payment, and an affiliation with a brand that demonstrates congruent values by avoiding Uber’s numerous HR and PR mistakes. More than choosing a rideshare provider, consumers are establishing brand relationships with companies like Lyft the same way they evaluate their friendships, including holding higher standards regarding how a company comports itself in the world at large.

In order to cope with the scope, complexity, and immediacy of this new kind of relationship, brands are seeking executives capable of crafting an integrated infrastructure of digital marketing competencies that are ideally led by someone who knows how each piece functions and interacts with every other part, regardless of whether the various components are owned or outsourced.

To build and operate such a platform, marketing professionals are expected to seamlessly link an archipelago of distinct skills and experiences.  These include the wisdom of a grizzled brand positioning veteran, the pluck of a social media maven, the discipline of a data-driven ROI taskmaster, a polyglot interpreter of omni-channel media effectiveness, and a strategic visionary capable of neural coupling with the consumer zeitgeist and anticipating demand before the market even knows what it wants.

In practical terms, the dream CMO candidate should be able to deliver a substantial audience; ever-improving sales conversion; keen product development insights; and a numinous and authentic corporate image.  With such lofty expectations, it’s no wonder there’s a talent shortage.

So, where are these prized CMO unicorns hiding? Well, nowhere actually.  The people are there, but the traditional CMO role itself has disappeared, and its concomitant skillsets have atomized into myriad distinct capabilities, each with a newfangled title grafted onto it. Examples include Chief Data Scientist, Head of Customer Experience, Chief Customer Insights Officer, Chief Brand Officer, Chief Social or Digital Officer, Chief Communications Officer, and Chief Analytics Officer.

Beyond their sheer number, what’s most notable about these roles is their increasing technical requirements.  Marketing professionals must track customers’ disparate decision paths and guide them with a bursting kitbag of analytical tools designed to convert sentiment into science and “activation” into cold hard sales.  Don Draper and his brute intuition-based ad campaigns have been railed out of town, and the anachronistic title of CMO appears to be dragging closely behind.

No more CMO titles? Possibly. What’s certain is that businesses craving marketing talent are placing increasing value on specialists who engage turbo-empowered consumers with new technical skills.  This may explain why an operations-obsessed company like McDonalds promoted their Chief Brand Officer, Steve Easterbrook, to CEO in 2015.  During the first 60 years following Ray Kroc’s founding, through his retirement in 1973, and all 11 CEOs thereafter, no other executive from the marketing ranks had ever previously risen directly to CEO.  It might also clarify why in 2017, 20% of all FTSE 100 CEOs have marketing backgrounds, up from 15% in 2011, according to Heidrick and Struggles Route to the Top survey.

For now, I’ll keep haranguing those recruiters and eventually may locate a lost band of elite CMOs. Maybe they’re all enrolled in graduate Data Science programs, or learning the nuances of online A/B testing.   Perhaps they’ve gone underground to perfect their copyrighting skills for Google Product Listing Ads.  Or just maybe the best CMO candidates haven’t vanished at all; they’ve already been promoted to CEO.

Todd Klein is a Partner at Revolution Growth. He joined Revolution after serving as co-founder, Managing Director, and Chief Investment Officer of SWaN & Legend Ventures and Interim COO of Anonymous Content. Revolution is an investor in several ecommerce businesses and marketplaces, including marketing technology and insights companies Resonate and Interactions.