Chief marketing officer isn’t an easy job. There’s great pressure to achieve specific business goals, using subjective tools like art and psychology, all within a media environment that’s fragmented and in great flux. It takes a special kind of leader to navigate those sorts of challenges – which helps explain why the average tenure for a CMO is down to about two years.
While success as a leader is a complicated alchemy – a mix of personal attributes, earned capabilities and the ebb and flow of team building – there are some traits that we’ve found to be a foundation for great marketing leadership.
A Sense of Purpose
Marketing is a pursuit that takes place on rough seas. The environment is always changing and waves roll in from across the globe. Companies adrift in those conditions need a North Star – a navigational benchmark that will guide decisions and keep focus on the destination. For successful companies, that North Star is purpose – the reason a company exists beyond just making money. It’s the difference an organization is trying to make in the lives of the people it serves. Every part of an organization is responsible for fulfilling that purpose, but no leader has a greater hand on the helm of purpose than a CMO.
We’ve found that successful CMOs understand the power of purpose and use that power to build teams, care for customers and grow their brand. Through purpose, they make decisions that are anchored to the foundation of the organization. The blinders of quarter-to-quarter execution strategies are lifted, the brand journey suddenly stretches beyond the horizon and everything the company does resonates with an authenticity that attracts better talent and more customers.
And a focus on purpose becomes a source of great comfort and confidence for a marketing leader who knows their role can often be nasty, brutish and short.
By its very nature, creativity breeds fear. It’s difficult to attempt something new, build something that wasn’t there before and open oneself to criticism. But creativity is the beating heart of successful, groundbreaking marketing and the best CMOs have the creative courage to put new things out into the universe for all to judge. Celebrated and effective campaigns like those for Old Spice, Dominos Pizza and Geico Insurance didn’t happen by playing it safe. Successful CMOs trust the people they’ve put in charge of creative, pave the way for those ideas and go boldly where other marketers in their category have not gone before.
A Community Builder
Marketing today is about building and maintaining communities – forums for customers, employees, fans and feedbackers to engage with each other. These communities are online, in the
store, in the homes of customers, in your headquarters building and everywhere in between. Some forums are on your territory and most are out there where marketers can’t do much in the way of control. But it’s imperative that brands add value and provide context within those communities in ways that go beyond just selling your product or service. And it’s vital to maintain an authentic brand voice within that living, breathing community.
In many ways, the CMO is the leader of a brand’s communities. And that role takes a lot of capabilities. Successful CMOs are passionate about people and put great trust in their contributions. They cultivate relationships internally and externally and engage with those people honestly and with an open mind. They listen much more than they speak. And they follow through and work to make a positive difference for the people in the community.
The best leaders are community builders.
“Situational awareness” is a phrase U.S. Air Force pilots use to describe the ultra-vigilance required to monitor everything that’s going on inside and outside the cockpit. That’s a simple idea – and very difficult to pull off.
Marketing leaders have a situational-awareness imperative. They must know their brand – its history, trajectory, points of connection with the marketplace and how best to activate the brand through each of those touch points. They have to know their product or service as well as their engineers and they have to be able to explain it effectively to anyone. They have to know their craft and how it’s evolving … their customers and how they’re feeling … and their teams and who they’re comprised of.
A successful CMO is a vigilant brand steward, someone who has done and continues to do their homework and someone whose natural curiosity makes good things happen. Awareness isn’t just a matter of credibility and progress – it’s a matter of survival.
A Decision Maker
Marketing is an exercise in simplification and balance.
Leaders have to take in a great deal of information, synthesize it, make sense of it and ultimately boil it all down into an actionable insight. But that process is never cut and dried. Because the right answer to any challenge lies somewhere between competing forces – each of which is important. There must be a balance between data and intuition, business results and long-term brand building and between vision and the circumstances at hand. Successful CMOs are able to focus on the things that matter, manage through tradeoffs, competing forces and reams of data, and fearlessly make good decisions.
Ultimately, making good decisions is the secret sauce of success for everyone – marketing leaders especially. A sense of purpose, creative courage, community building and awareness are really just vital ingredients to that one simple imperative: make good decisions.
Duff Stewart is the chief executive officer of GSD&M, a full-service advertising agency based in Austin.
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