Business Leader | Entrepreneur | Board Member | Former COO and CMO – Metropolis and Dr Lal PathLabs | Launched the brand Windshield Experts in India from scratch | Oberoi Group of Hotels

CMO to CEO : The Final Journey

Written by: Sameer Kaul
About the author: Business Leader | Entrepreneur Board Member | Former COO and CMO – Metropolis and Dr Lal PathLabs | Launched the brand Windshield Experts in India from scratch | Oberoi Group of Hotels | MBA – Bond University Australia


CEO CMOThe top marketing job in the company is a minefield where many talented executives have failed. While some of this is attributable to the ambiguity of the role itself, its also a function of how a CMO builds consensus among his / her other C-suite peers and looks at his / her department more in terms of the business impact it delivers and not merely a  function relegated to marketing activities.

As per research its established that a typical CMO tenure in a company is just around 4.1 years, the least among any of the other members of the C-suite like CEO, CHRO, CFO, CIO. As per research its established that mostly its due to the trust deficit between the CEO and the CMO and the ambiguity of the role, poor role designing, expectations mismatching.

The CEO mostly  feels  a CMO hardly delivers at the end of the day. I know many CEO’s who would trust their Sales Head any day over their CMO. In many organizations the role of marketing has become more of a support function to the sales team and less of a strategic or a driving role. This is a tragedy and a disaster. In many  organizations I have even seen a CMO becoming subservient to the Sales Head on the instructions of the CEO and surprisingly in many organizations the CMO even reports to the Sales Head or an SBU – Head.

The problem is also the lack of clarity, knowledge or the insight on what marketing concept is all about. In many companies marketing and sales are sometimes used interchangeably and this is an issue.

The CMO typically reports directly to the CEO. He/ She is not conceptually supposed to report to anyone else like the CFO or the Sales Head, etc. Its typically a function that operates straight from the company’s head quarters / head office. The CMO in a marketing driven company is the corner room next only to the CEO.

The CMO role is a very strategic and a profound role. Management and Marketing Guru, Peter Drucker in his famous book – the ‘Practice of Management’ declared that there is only one purpose of business – and that is to create a new customer. As a matter of fact, this is exactly what the CMO has to do and in a way the CMO role is directly linked to the reason why the business exists in the first place. Hence this is the most mission critical role.

The customer is at the centre of the business strategy in well run and well managed professional companies – and the CMO is in effect the guardian of the customer and the Voice of Customer. A CMO in the Board Room is like a Customer in the Board Room and this is very profound and revolutionary as a concept.

A CMO role is not about marketing initiatives, promotions, social media, the digital marketing new age initiatives. Its more deeper and wider. Its the most important pillar on which the entire destiny of the company exists. If a company calls itself and aims at being ‘’customer centric’’ then it needs to create a well designed role and a career road map for the CMO.

The CMO is the voice of the customer and hence the CMO has to be the best sought out talent. According to me the CMO should be a part of the Board Room meetings and setting, shoulder to shoulder with the CEO and the CFO.

The CEO and the CMO are two customer facing roles, rest C level positions are mostly inward looking. A lot of time has to be spent to get the right CMO in and then he/she needs to be fully empowered with budgets, authority to carve out the future of the company, however with the CEO working closely with him/her.

The CMO role should be designed to provide authority to CMO on all 4Ps of Marketing and even much more and not just merely confined to the promotions/advertising, etc, part as is usually the case.

Whether its Product designing, Product launches, Pricing, distribution strategy, promotions, events, PR, retail location checks, launches – anything that affects the brand or the customer experience or the customer is in fact the domain of the CMO.

Its a paradox that the most important and profound role of a CMO, a high impact profile of a CMO next only to the CEO usually gets passed over when a career opportunity arises. Most of the cases I have seen a CEO gap is filled by getting on board an  outside CEO, or even if it’s an organic promotion, the  other CXO peers usually from finance, sales or operations are given preference over the CMO and elevated to the CEO position.

Whether its the image or the functional nature of a CMO role – a lot still needs to change globally to design and structure the CMO role more strategically so that a CMO has a career path and the CMO role is a gateway to becoming a future  CEO and not a dead end as is widely becoming the case.

I was fortunate to make this transition successfully from being the CMO  at  some of India’s prominent brands to the CEO/COO role at other companies later on.  I will highlight 7 mantras that can become an important  part of the CMO tool kit or arsenal  helping him / her to move to the next level or the proverbial dream role of becoming a CEO.

  • Think of Marketing as a Business Role and not a set of marketing activities.

Think Business and not Activity.

  • Cultivate a great professional equation with the CEO and help him / her to look good – delivering revenues and profits. Marketing becomes one of the most vital and important role that is fully aligned to business. Chemistry matters. Alignment matters.

As a CMO – Think like a CEO to become one in future. Its all about mindset.

  • Manage effectively horizontally with other C-suite peers like CHRO, CFO, CIO, CSO, etc. Building a consensus is important to get everyone’s buy in.

As a CMO – Be a consensus builder.

  • Take ownership – become the voice of customer, bring the customer in the meeting rooms, board room and help creating a customer centric organisation. As a CMO – become the de-facto customer yourself – put the customer at the center of business. Evolve a customer based business strategy.

As a CMO – Build and evolve an ‘Outside – Inside’ Strategy.

  • Set expectations clearly with your boss – the CEO on what is expected from you as the CMO. Don’t leave anything to surprises and wrongly designed roles created for you. A CMO role is ambiguous as a default setting in most companies.

 Its your career and agenda as a CMO to ensure that you are setup for success. Success at the end of the day is mostly all about setting and managing expectations.

  • Become the change agent. Remember a CMO role is a customer facing role, unlike other C level roles that are mostly inward looking like the CHRO, CFO, CIO, etc. Drive innovation, start new projects, take PNL responsibility for new projects, drive cross functional teams, rally, champion these new innovations and consumer Ask for challenging assignments from the CEO, show that you are not an expensive CMO who only drinks coffee, meets glamorous client servicing teams of ad agencies and does some creatives and brochures.

Demonstrate  that as CMO you are a Business Head and you impact business directly.

  • Combine legacy marketing with new age Digital marketing. Remember marketing has changed over the years and today its all about customer acquisitions as well as engagement. Train and up-skill your self regularly with new courses on digital marketing, analytics, etc, as per the requirements of your company / area of business. Remember Marketing is not only about conventional and legacy marketing and neither is marketing today also about social media marketing. Its a combination of highly evolved marketing principles, consumer sciences driven through a platform of technology and the fast evolving social media trends and insights.

Marketing is best delivered when its a hybrid strategy of legacy and new age marketing tools. The conventional marketing is stronger in concepts, fundamentals, principles, consumer behaviour sciences – the new age marketing digitization or marketing digitalization is all about faster content flow, making meaningful conversations with your customer and closing the loop faster, efficiently and more effectively.

The CMO has to use his depth and expertise of a very profound role of marketing and align it with other business roles. The elevation to the CEO happens when the specialist CMO sees how all the pieces of business work and affect each other. Its a great exhilarating experience for a CMO to move to a CEO role, its the most fulfilling one – to get to the top and then get a panoramic view of the business – the meeting of the specialist CMO and the generalist CEO.

Picture 1That’s when value is really created – when the rubber meets the road

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