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The Evolution of the CMO

Today’s marketers are expected to be creative visionaries and data-driven decision makers. No wonder so many are taking the top job for themselves.
Top marketers are increasingly seeing a path to the CEO's office.
Top marketers are increasingly seeing a path to the CEO's office. (Jetta Productions/Blend Images)
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Key insights

  • CMOs today have a wider job description than they did in years past, touching more parts of the business beyond traditional advertising.
  • They must build and execute not only a marketing strategy for their brands, but have a knowledge of every aspect of the business, from supply chain to sustainability.
  • With that, top marketers are increasingly seen as prime candidates for chief executive roles.

At many fashion brands, the CMO’s job description is starting to read more and more like the CEO’s.

Once primarily responsible for overseeing the creation and placement of ads, chief marketing officers are now tasked with everything from maintaining their brand’s digital presence to stage managing live events. They’re often the first to get credit for growing sales – and the first to take the blame (the average CMO tenure at the top 100 advertisers is just 3.3 years, shorter than other C-suite roles, according to executive search firm Spencer Stuart).

“It’s no longer enough to just be good at the craft of marketing,” said Chris Ross, VP analyst at research and consulting firm Gartner. “At the CMO level, you have to understand all of it: the product, your channel strategies, even supply chain. You have to have a much deeper holistic knowledge of the business, because things are so closely integrated.”

The most successful among them are also increasingly seen as candidates for the top job. Gucci’s longtime marketing chief Robert Triefus was named CEO of Moncler-owned outerwear brand Stone Island in May, Damien Bertrand, who spent nearly two decades in marketing roles at L’Oréal, became CEO of Loro Piana in 2021. Jenny Galimberti, chief executive officer of JW Anderson, was previously CMO at Dunhill and worked in marketing for brands like Louis Vuitton and Gucci.

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Particularly following the pandemic, which forced marketers to strip back and focus on figuring out their brand’s purpose and conveying that to customers, CMOs have had to learn their brand inside and out — much in the way a CEO does.

“You’re creating a universe of affinity for the brand, and that requires musculature beyond just sort of understanding a product, a demographic and how to connect them,” said Siddhartha Shukla, the deputy general manager of Lanvin, who was previously the chief marketing officer at Theory. “It goes to cultural gestures, events, being part of movements and the communities that are able to be cultivated through that activity.”

A Changing Role

CMOs today are not just in charge of what a brand says, but building what is essentially its personality — and bringing that to life across channels, according to Nick Primola, EVP and head of industry leadership and the chief marketing officer practice for the Association of National Advertisers.

“Marketing today is more about creating value through the experience, which includes products, services and everything in between,” he said. “It’s a company-wide responsibility to deliver that value in that experience, and the CMO is now more of an orchestrator of that.”

With the emergence of digital marketing and all the analytics tools that have come with that, top marketers need to be more data-driven than they were in the past. Aspiring CMOs who spent the earlier years of their careers in creative or brand strategy, for example, will need to build their skills in data and analytics, and vice versa. Plus, they work more closely with teams across their organisation, from merchandising to product development to finance, and should develop if not an expertise, but a working knowledge of those areas.

Additionally, CMOs are often expected to be willing to experiment with emerging technologies and keep their organisations on the cutting edge. Simon Bassett, the CEO of TML Partners, a marketing recruiting firm, pointed to the fact that while chief digital officers were more in vogue in the early 2010s, now those responsibilities typically fall under the CMO’s purview.

All the while, CMOs are also under pressure to notch wins quickly. For those mounting a brand turnaround strategy, these kinds of efforts can take much longer to pay off. They can’t, however, focus on that strategy so much that they ignore the present.

“Marketers need strong vision, but they also need quick wins,” said Katie Welch, the CMO of Rare Beauty. “If you can tie your quick win into your overall vision to serve as proof that you’re on your way to that, you can show you’re on the right path.”

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Internal communication, Welch added, is key. In any CMO’s first 90 days, they should take in the organisation’s culture, the state of its brand, and communicate what they want to bring to it. Bassett, too, agreed, saying that a common reason CMOs leave a job is that they don’t have the buy-in and support of their colleagues and executive team in bringing their strategy to life.

“You have to take some time to understand the brand and learn from those who have been there,” she said. “In that listening process, start to plant seeds for your vision, so that people start to see and feel what you’re doing.”

Bigger Responsibilities, Bigger Opportunities

While CMOs today have a wider scope of responsibilities than they once did, there’s also greater potential in the role as more top marketers move into CEO roles or board seats. Historically, those jobs have gone to other players. A 2021 study from Spencer Stuart showed that over the past 20 years, 85 percent of CEOs of S&P 500 companies were COOs, divisional CEOs, CFOs or from outside the C-suite prior to landing the top job.

Ross said that CMOs and CEOs share several qualities that make the marketers strong chief executives: both positions are focussed on growth, for one. And as marketers today have a more wide-reaching understanding of the business, their mindset is increasingly like a CEO’s, too.

“Ultimately it’s the marketing strategy that that leads, so it’s only right and appropriate that as marketing rises, it’s continually rising up the boardroom agenda and you see more CMOs who are credibly presenting themselves as candidates for CEOs,” said Bassett.

However, that transition does force CMOs to think even more widely than they did before.

“When you’re the marketer, you think about your customer, who is voting for your product and allowing your business to exist,” said Shukla. “But you also need to think about your shareholder and understand how to manage that relationship, because it’s a critical source of funding as well.”

Further Reading

Case Study | The Essential Brand Marketing Guide

Building emotional, even inspirational, connections to a product is more critical than ever in fashion and beauty. In today’s hyper-competitive, crowded environment, marketing strategies that make brands stand out and stay culturally relevant need a mix of old and new tactics.

Lessons From Influencer Marketing Mishaps

Recent controversies from Tarte, Shein and even Bud Light have demonstrated the risks that come with building marketing campaigns around social media stars — and provided learnings for how to operate in the sector today.

About the author
Diana Pearl
Diana Pearl

Diana Pearl is News and Features Editor at The Business of Fashion. She is based in New York and drives BoF’s marketing and media coverage.

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