CMOs see influence climb in crisis, but action is needed to preserve gains

The chief marketing officer, a title that has seen its relevance sorely tested for years, has not been as roiled by the COVID-19 crisis as some might expect. More than half of surveyed chief marketers report their influence has increased, while just 5% claimed it decreased, according to a recent whitepaper from M&C Saatchi Group’s Clear consultancy. However, CMOs should not get comfortable — if they even can — as underlying problems impacting marketing could resurface in force once today’s all-hands-on-deck mandates cool.

“It feels like a moment in time for CMOs,” said Pete Markey, CMO at the U.K. pharmacy chain Boots. Markey was interviewed in coordination with the release of Clear’s research, which he is familiar with and discussed along with the particulars of his new position at Boots.

“For me, every CMO should view this as an opportunity to come out stronger and function as a growth lever for businesses as they enter the next stage,” Markey added.

Though Clear’s report is the rare one to send positive signals about CMOs, the job itself is not actually getting any easier, and many senior marketers feel spread thin as the pandemic and adjacent issues wear on. A critical point Clear outlined was the tension between long-term brand vision — the CMO’s traditional bread and butter — and the pressure to deliver on short-term goals.

It’s an enduring problem for CMOs, but one that has been sharply amplified by current volatility. Similarly, some marketers are losing sight of larger issues on their teams like talent shortages in the crush of short-termism, a strain that will get more intense as data and digital gravitate closer to the center of marketing.

“The bit that often gets lost in the busyness of the day-to-day … is the transformational side of where we’re heading next, what’s over the horizon,” said Markey, who joined Boots in February. “Often we get caught up in the short-term because you have to — because the lifeblood of any CMO is results and performance in today’s data.”

Speaking the language

Helping to buoy CMOs are demands around data, an area many organizations are scrambling to wrest greater control over amid the implementation of new privacy laws and the death of third-party cookies. Troves of shopper data have been a boon for retailers like Boots’ sister brand Walgreens, which in December launched in its own media network.


“As marketers, you’ve got to talk the language of the boardroom.”

Peter Markey

CMO, Boots


Not every business has those capabilities, but marketing departments still shouldn’t underestimate their influence. Clear revealed that 89% of CMOs believe they have at least “a lot of control and input” in shaping business objectives. CMOs are also often in lockstep with CEOs in defining strategy — more so than vice presidents and directors — with data-driven marketing a shared priority.

“There’s a big change agenda that marketing is in the driving seat of,” Markey said.

Direct access to the boardroom helps fortify CMOs and is one way they can assure their goals are aligned with the larger organization, avoiding short-term burnout. However, improving communication skills is important, and likely a shortcoming for some marketers who cut their teeth in the traditional branding and creative fields.

“The worst you can do is say, ‘our brand has never been stronger’ and yet the business is not doing well,” Markey said. “As marketers, you’ve got to talk the language of the boardroom.”

CMOs at the same time feel more confident than roughly equivalent roles. Only a little more than half (53%) of non-CMO marketers in the C-suite — positions like chief customer officer and chief experience officer — believe their strategy is well defined, per Clear.

“It’s really helpful having someone on the executive team alongside colleagues from more of an operational background or HR or finance,” Markey said. “It says, look, marketing is important. Marketing is one of the factors and one of the forces driving growth in a business.”

New talent battleground

The CMO role is a new one for Boots, which previously had a marketing manager, Marketing Week reported. The company joins others in either introducing or reinstating a CMO after the position’s presence appeared on the wane throughout a good chunk of the 2010s.

Boots’ parent company, Walgreens Boots Alliance, has doubled down on a digital transformation strategy that last summer saw it ink a pact with Adobe and Microsoft on developing more personalized marketing. Those types of deals emphasize how marketing teams are shifting focus to fields like data science, while trying to preserve historic creative functions. That’s a juggling act CMOs could be better-suited than most to handle, assuming they can keep multiple balls in the air.

“It’s that combination of data science with an eye on creativity, but someone with a really rich background in understanding how programmatic media works,” Markey said. “Particularly when you’ve got really rich data sources in the business — knowing what to do with them, how to deploy them and make them work with your agencies is critical.”

Yet, Clear found just 14% of surveyed CMOs believe attracting and retaining talent are a priority at the moment, a gap that may come back to bite them as technology is set to only play a larger role in marketing with the broader shift toward digital. Hiring for young talent in sectors like data science is set to get more competitive.

The chasing of shiny objects, while not a new problem, also compounds on one of talent shortage. Markey used the mega-popular app TikTok as an example. The video-sharing platform is in high demand as user growth explodes, but marketers should carefully consider whether it’s the right place for their brand before going all-in on a TikTok advertising play.

“Where I’ve seen most of these sort of [technology] implementations be less effective is when a new bit of kit arrives and everyone expects it to be amazing, but you don’t change what you do or how you work,” Markey said. “The key is having the right way of working to set alongside the technology. If you don’t adjust how you work or orientate that then things are less effective.”

Stretched to the limit

Clear’s research acknowledges that CMOs need to put a lot on their plate in order to succeed. COVID-19 has truncated the production and planning time of large campaigns, while reinforcing the need to be able to drop everything and start fresh on a dime.

“The unique challenge for the CMO is to both identify strategic priorities and invest for the future, as well as manage crisis communications and day-to-day changes to the business context,” Clear wrote in the whitepaper.

If that doesn’t sound like an appealing prospect, many marketers would agree. Clear described what it calls a “brain drain” crisis emerging, with less than a fifth of surveyed senior marketers saying they aspire to move up the ladder to take on the mantle of CMO. That’s an existential question for marketing and a problem of branding for the role as well.


“The key is having the right way of working to set alongside the technology. If you don’t adjust how you work or orientate that then things are less effective.”

Pete Markey

CMO, Boots


One potential solution is to rethink agency partnerships and lessen the load on CMOs. Sixty percent of CEO respondents to Clear said marketers should work with third parties to improve experience design. Consumer research and advertising were other areas called out by chief executives. Some marketers disagreed with that assessment, believing agencies were most useful for consumer research and communications support. Reconciling those differences could be a means of patching over blind spots in CMO knowledge and avoiding the brain drain identified by Clear.

“You talk about the pace of change, have a look at the advancements in how you can use first-party data and programmatic now versus where we were six months or three months ago,” Markey said. “As a CMO, you have to stay relevant and stay fresh, and that includes working with agencies.”

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