Why Are Some Brands and CMOs Not the Right Fit?

It is no secret that the shelf life of a CMO is not very long. According to research from Korn Ferry, published earlier this year, the average tenure of a CMO is the lowest of all C-suite titles, at an average of 3.5 years.

Now, it would be far too easy to make the leap and assumption that the reason why chief marketing officers don’t last very long is due to something they did or did not do, right? I mean clearly this short of a tenure is reflective of a given CMOs lack of ability, knowledge, experience and on and on, yes?

Um, no.

Not so fast, Sparky.

Not Knowing What You Don’t Know

Or another way of saying this:

This happens to be one of my favorite lines; one I reference all the time in life because I think it’s so simplistic yet so meaningful and telling.

Not sure if he’s a fan of Dirty Harry as well, but, Patrick Adams — Forbes Top 50 CMO’s | GM I Chief Marketing Officer |Ex PayPal, Victoria’s Secret, Bertelsmann, Citi, Chase — clearly believes there is a disconnect between the known and unknown.

“I believe the main culprit here is a pervasive lack of understanding of marketing amongst our CEOs, CFOs, COOs (the C level hiring managers) in corporate America,” he says. “If you truly don’t understand the difference between a creative marketer and a digital/performance marketer – then I’m not sure how you can hire the right talent to lead your marketing organization.”

He also has no sympathy for CEOs who don’t understand there’s a right way and wrong way to hire a CMO. “I don’t understand how CEOs are always shocked when they hire a creative marketer who has absolutely no operational chops or performance marketing experience to lead a primarily ROI driven organization and that person fails. Beyond strategic vision and corporate culture, one of the most critical talents a great CEO brings to the table is the ability to recognize, hire and keep great talent.”

Additionally, Thomas Barta, CMO Leadership Expert and author of the book The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader believes the biggest mistake CEOs can make is hiring a great technical CMO who lacks leadership skills.

“Many CEOs worry too much about what a candidate knows about branding, or digital marketing, or pricing.” Adams, however, thinks it’s more the opposite: “I’ve found the problem to be that many CEOs don’t know what to look for when hiring a CMO because they don’t understand marketing.”

Adams does agree, however, with Barta when it comes to leadership skills. “First, you need to know what you’re hiring for from a marketing perspective. And on on top of that you need to look for proven leadership skills and experience.”

A Vetting We Will Go

Adams believes the majority of failed CMOs can be traced back to improper vetting of candidates. For example, no subject matter experts (SMEs) participating in the interview process. Or reference checks that were peripheral at best as well as a lack of an overall understanding of what type of marketing is needed to drive the business.

According to Adams, typically, the best CMO candidate has a fairly in-depth level of experience in all major areas of marketing:

  • Brand/Creative/Comms/PR
  • Performance
  • Digital
  • Growth
  • Lifecycle (Customer Management)
  • Product Marketing
  • Social
  • Content
  • Data/Analytics
  • Research
  • Go To Market
  • UX/CX
  • E2E Experience and Customer Journey

Additionally, that person should have extensive experience managing or working as a senior level executive in a company like or as close to as the one you are considering hiring them for. Moreover, they should have proven executive presence, leadership qualities and emotional intelligence.

For his part, Barta also places part of the blame on the CMO themselves.

“The biggest hiring mistake CMOs make is to take the job description at face value. Customer focus, brand growth, and marketing modernization, may sound clear in a job profile. But what did the CEO mean, really? Did they fully understand all the implications? Blindly following what’s been said in the job interview is a fast track to failure. CMO success is all about constant C-suite alignment.”

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