lead like a marketer, think like a CEO

how to find success as a marketing leader

the state of the marketing leader

You’ve likely read the following: we are witnessing the rise of the marketer. Sometimes the phrase is more descriptive. The data-driven marketer. The platform marketer. The conversational marketer. The experience marketer.

While each statement holds a kernel of truth, not one is exactly true. What is true: as a marketing leader, you have never been better positioned to be a business leader, and it’s up to you to weigh in on what’s best for the business.

You serve two key stakeholders as a marketing leader: your end consumer (customer experience) and your CEO (business results). These stakeholders at times may appear to be in opposition.

Your success as a marketing leader has always come down to your ability to deliver an exceptional customer experience for the end consumer. This is no different today. Your CEO sits at the other end of your stakeholder spectrum. Responsible for moving the organization forward and creating shareholder value, your CEO is increasingly looking to you, the marketing leader, to drive growth.

You may find yourself seemingly torn between these stakeholders. As a result, your priorities – meeting the demands of the end consumer and delivering business results – may seem at odds. This is a tension that I hear marketing leaders describe often, and I want to share some of the reasons I think this pressure is so prevalent.

your customer’s experience

The customer experience has always been your responsibility as a marketing leader. Today, though, that responsibility is broader than it’s ever been.

Customer expectations about the experiences we deliver have evolved incredibly over the past few years. 81% of customers demand improved response time, and 76% of customers expect organizations to understand their individual needs.

This trend is referred to as the Amazon Effect in retail. In other industries, we call it consumerization. Whatever the term, customer expectations have never been higher, and as a result, brands that deliver the best customer experiences differentiate.

That differentiation pays off. 86% of customers will pay more for a better brand experience, but only 1% feel that brands consistently meet their expectations according to a customer experience impact report by Oracle.

Taking that idea further, the Temkin Group found that a modest improvement in customer experience could create $775 million in revenue impact over three years for an average $1 billion organization.

That’s the kind of promise that catches the attention of the CEO, which brings us to the other end of our stakeholder spectrum.

your CEO’s expectation

Business results are non-negotiable for any leader, and this is increasingly true for the marketing leader. Scrutiny from chief executive and financial officers has never been higher as data on the impact of customer experience becomes more available and insight into the results you drive becomes more accessible.

Trust overall is clearly low. 80% of CEOs report contemplating their CMO’s underperformance and the prospect of removing them. As a result, CMOs have the shortest tenure among the C-suite on average at 4.1 years. CHROs, CFOs and CEOs average 5.0, 5.1, and 8.0 years respectively.

It’s not surprising that CEOs view their chief marketers this way when you consider what chief marketers think of themselves. A 2018 survey of 191 global CMOs by CMO Council and Deloitte brought the following to light:

  • 95% agree that revenue is the top measure of growth for the organization
  • 70% agree that revenue is the top measure of growth for them personally
  • 20% percent view themselves as the market explorer that identifies and maps new routes to revenue

These datapoints underline the tension you might feel as a marketing leader today. Clearly customers’ expectations have risen, and CEOs demand marketing leaders drive results. This may seem like a challenge at face value, but it’s truly an opportunity for growth. So, how can you create the right balance and deliver on expectations for all stakeholders?

lead like a marketer, think like a CEO

To manage the expectations of your two most important stakeholders – the customer and the CEO – you must lead like a marketer and think like a CEO. This means being relentlessly focused on delivering an incredible customer experience while prioritizing initiatives that drive the greatest impact for the business.

 I want to provide an example of what this looks like from the perspective of a CMO I’ve worked with. While the situation is real, and potentially one you’ve found yourself in, the names of the individuals involved have been changed.

When this CMO, who I’ll call Mary, first joined her organization, her CEO, who I’ll call Tom, tasked her with two key objectives: 1. Differentiate and 2. Drive revenue. Mary also knew the previous CMO had recently launched a visually appealing website and content strategy aimed at connecting with end consumers.

Despite the website and content created being both well-written and beautifully designed, business results didn’t follow. To make matters worse, there were more glaring opportunities to be prioritized and addressed. Learning from the mistakes of her predecessor, Mary set her focus on deeply understanding both the customer experience and the strategic imperatives set by the CEO, Tom.

Working cross-functionally to tie qualitative and quantitative insight together, Mary identified that the biggest area of need for both the customer experience and business results was supporting the lead-to-close process for their fastest growing business unit.

With this information in hand, Mary, her internal team, and external partners (full disclosure: Fathom is an external partner) interviewed end consumers, sales representatives, and the product delivery team to dig deeper into customer motivations, success drivers, and the problems her company’s product truly solved for.

Further, the team working on the project identified the widest gaps in the current customer experience and outlined the marketing levers available to influence results. These insights produced a marketing strategy that differentiated her company’s product, met the needs of the end consumers, better supported her internal stakeholders, and ultimately drove an increase in revenue.

As a result, Tom, the CEO, is leaning into marketing strategy and looking to Mary as the organization’s customer experience advocate and champion for business results. In turn, Mary has earned the autonomy to implement her roadmap to improve the customer experience and is making sure to tie her team’s effort to revenue impact by creating specific benchmarks and KPIs.

two mindsets to adopt

Mary shows us how to lead like a marketer and think like a CEO. There are a few specific reasons Mary was successful as she balanced both customer and CEO expectations, and I want to highlight some of the most important pieces.

First, Mary acted as an agent for change by being both a catalyst and a connector. Operating as an agent for change – being a collaborative catalyst your organization looks to for growth – is a critical mindset to adopt, and as a marketing leader, you’re well-positioned to play this part.

Start by creating a clear vision of where you’re going. What is the ultimate business outcome your CEO cares about? Why does your customer interact with you, and what do they expect? What’s standing between your business goals and customer expectations? A helpful tool we’ve developed for creating this vision is something we call the customer-first strategy map. Here’s a worksheet to get started creating your own.

By answering these questions, you clarify your vision, and the result is a customer-first strategy for achieving it. Remember, strategies are more than a collection of channels, tactics and technology platforms. What’s often missing from even the best strategies is a focus on change management.

The people and politics you’ll have to navigate as you move your organization forward must be accounted for. Be mindful of the internal and external implications your strategy might introduce.

Second, Mary understood yesterday’s methods solved yesterday’s problems. Modern marketing provides no shortage of approaches for finding your customer, connecting their experience to business outcomes, and measuring the impact of your efforts. You need to communicate the why and how behind your vision. We’ve talked about why it’s important to evolve, so let’s focus on the how.

From a talent perspective, surround yourself with experts committed to understanding what makes your business and customer unique – generalists can only take you so far. This likely means a mix of internal hires and strategic partnerships. The first step to building this coalition of experts is identifying where you are stronger with a partner to enhance your capabilities.

From a channel and technology standpoint, consider if you’re leveraging the tools at your disposal to their full capabilities. If you aren’t making the most of your investments or meeting the needs of your end consumers, determine what needs to change and prioritize by weighing business impact and speed to market.

There’s more to success than these two elements of course, but they’re central to Mary’s breakthrough with her CEO and exemplified by numerous other successful marketing leaders I’ve had the opportunity to work with. I highly encourage you to reflect on your current state and see where these mindsets can help you drive growth.

making a connection

The evolving demands on marketers is a topic I have a deep passion for, and I find myself having conversations with marketing leaders about it on a regular basis. Conversations about how they’re processing the evolving nature of their roles within their organizations. Conversations about best practices in goal setting, prioritization, and change management. Conversations about how to successfully get ahead of this wave of seemingly constant change while balancing the unique nature of answering to both their customer and their CEO.

Over the coming months, I’ll be bringing forward common themes from these conversations in hopes of providing a valuable perspective for those who find themselves solving complex marketing challenges.

Consider this an open invitation to follow along, to reach out with a challenge, or to offer your fellow marketing leader a potential solution. Thanks for reading.


IBM Institute for Business Value: The New Age of Ecosystems
Oracle: Customer Experience Impact Report
Temkin Group: ROI of Customer Experience
ThinkGrowth: Why Would Anyone Want to be a CMO?
HBR: The Trouble with CMOs
CMO Council: The Spark to Drive Growth