the cmo’s path to ceo

the opportunity for marketers to drive growth

steve kessen
9-minute read

in brief

  • Today, the CMO’s career path leads to CEO for the marketers who can capitalize on the opportunity before them.
  • CEOs agree: 90% believe the CMO role will change fundamentally in the next three years.
  • To capitalize, marketing leaders must do three things: intensely scrutinize marketing behavior against shareholder value, have a deep understanding of other functional areas of the business, and speak the language of finance.

Think back to the start of your career. When you set out on your professional journey, what did you envision as the ultimate outcome? Maybe you could see yourself managing a brand, connecting real solutions to problems customers didn’t know they had. Perhaps the road you imagined led to a CMO role.

But if you stopped there, you may have sold yourself short.

Gone are the days when CMO was the professional pinnacle for driven marketers; today, your path leads to the CEO’s office—if you’re ready to capitalize on the opportunity. The reason why is simple: growth. The CEO’s mandate is to maximize shareholder value, and few in the C-suite are better positioned to do so than pioneering marketers.

90% of today’s CEOs and chief marketing officers believe “the CMO role will change fundamentally over the next three years,” according to a global survey by Accenture published in 2019. Just how fundamentally will chief marketer roles shift?

According to the same 2019 Accenture survey, 17% of chief marketers surveyed lead a Living Business, or “an organization that continuously adapts at speed and scale to achieve total customer relevance and sustained growth.”

The CMOs at these Living Businesses created significantly more value than their peers. The analysis found that an investment in a portfolio of the companies led by these change-minded CMOs would, on average, outperform a portfolio of companies in similar industries by 11% per year.

a sign of the times

Another sign of the chief marketer’s tremendous opportunity to drive business outcomes: management consultants’ expansion into the marketing space.

In 2014, IBM iX was the first consultancy to break into Ad Age’s list of the 10 largest agency companies in the world. Two years later, the number had grown to four as Deloitte, PwC, and Accenture joined IBM on the list. By 2017, Cognizant Interactive cracked the top ten, and consultancies made up half of the largest agency companies list. The trend continues. Why?

Over the last decade, the marketer’s mandate became the same as the CEO’s: maximize shareholder value. These management consultancies saw an opportunity to leverage their business acumen to help marketers mature their strategies and tackle major initiatives like digital transformation and customer experience.

When the world’s largest management consultancies are placing bets, take notice. Time will tell if these organizations are suited to help CMOs succeed (and rise the ranks), but their appetite to invest in marketing practices clearly suggests they see an opening.

Despite these trends, less than 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs have marketing backgrounds. What’s the ambitious marketer to do?

what can marketers do?

Marketing leaders have a clear opportunity to prove themselves as business leaders, and few are taking complete advantage. So, what can you do to drive growth at the highest level?

In short, think like a CEO:

Intensely scrutinize marketing initiatives against maximizing shareholder value.

  • While you would normally find advice to focus obsessively on your customer here, I recommend you first identify your outcomes—your “why?”

  • 86% of customers will pay more for a better brand experience, but those same customers say just 1% of brands consistently meet their expectations. Improving customer experience (CX) is a fast track to the highest level of business leadership only if you can tie the impact to organizational outcomes. Start building your business case as you develop your CX strategy.

Build a strong understanding of other functional areas within the business.

  • Truly maximizing growth requires getting the most from your team, across functional areas. Immerse yourself in their challenges, expect nothing in return, and use your unique experience to help them find solutions to problems they didn’t know they had.

  • To that end, one of the most important skills I’ve developed over my career and the one I most often coach marketing leaders on is change leadership. I wrote an in-depth perspective on change leadership, and here’s the gist: Be intentional in how you approach challenges personally and professionally. Adopt a change-oriented mindset, focus yourself and your peers on a clear vision, and, above all else, act.

Speak in the currency of your chief finance and executive officers.

  • Marketing leaders must be able to clearly tie their efforts to revenue, the language of the chief executive. This is one of the most fundamental competencies of the CEO, and it’s increasingly required of the chief marketer—even those without a desire to claim the corner office.

  • Beyond return, listen to the language of your peers across functional areas, especially those in the C-suite. As they focus on growth, how are your partners in finance perceiving your efforts and impact as a marketing leader? You might be surprised how little some of your colleagues know about the revenue-driving levers at the disposal of marketers.

To summarize the path I see for marketers, I want to share a quote from Jeff Jones, the former consumer brands CMO who now leads H&R Block as chief executive. This quote appeared in the Wall Street Journal:

“First and foremost, learn the business.…I came into [my first CMO role] straight out of an agency and I wasn’t ready. I didn’t understand the importance of executive presence and influence. I didn’t know or understand how the business made money. I couldn’t speak the language of finance or relate to the CFO. I got so excited about the brand and its potential that I made mostly brand decisions, not business decisions. Through that two-year experience, I learned that my future success hinged on my ability to dig deep and get smart about the business and the domains of other C-suite leaders.”


My career has taken an interesting path, one that’s allowed me to gain a unique perspective on leadership, especially in marketing. I have held positions across functional areas and industries, from product development to sales, and professional sports to applicant tracking. Now, I have the privilege to serve as CEO at Fathom, a role that allows me to dive into (and live) the daily challenges that marketing leaders face.

There are few things I enjoy more than helping my peers chart a course for change and overcome the obstacles that arise along the way. If you find yourself standing before an uncertain path—whether it leads to digital transformation, marketing measurement that clearly demonstrates return, or a career choice that didn’t seem possible a decade ago—I’d love to understand how you’re processing the opportunities before you.

Reach out; let’s have a conversation.

resources

Accenture: Meet the New Brand of CMO
WSJ: The Path from CMO to CEO
CMS Wire: Traveling the Road from CMO to CEO
AdAge: State of the Agency World