The Changing Role of the CMO


March 31, 2009

by Marshall Goldsmith

Marketing is everywhere, but with the ubiquity of slogans and ads, it’s easy to forget that there’s more to marketing than meets the eye. As a result, it is often one of the first budgets to be cut in economic downturns. However, a successful marketing campaign can be the best way for an organization to reach rapidly disappearing customers, to let people know that the organization is adapting and changing to continue to serve them despite current difficulties, and to stay in people’s minds so that when the economy does turn around, the company is fresh in their minds.

Not an expert myself in marketing myself, I recently spoke with my friend Susanne Lyons, former chief marketing officer of Visa and Charles Schwab (SCHW) and decorated veteran marketer. While she is well-known in the marketing community, you may be more familiar with her work than her name: She was the architect behind Visa’s most successful campaign, “Life takes Visa.” Edited excerpts of our conversation follow:

Susanne, how is marketing changing today? 

Marketing is a very dynamic area right now, with the Internet and social networking probably causing the most visible changes. But I believe the most dramatic changes are happening internally, especially in this tougher economy. Right now, every dollar needs to work harder, and marketing … CMOs in particular … are under more pressure than ever. Many businesses view marketing as a cost center without recognizing how it contributes to the bottom line. Marketing budgets are often the first to be cut. All of this can lead to a crisis of credibility, with marketing losing political power and voice in the organization.

Is this loss of power and voice deserved? 

No! But of course I’m going to say that, because I’m in marketing. The reality is that it is hurting businesses now more than ever. Marketing is responsible for creating the first impression and for driving demand, which has a strong impact on the prospect’s view of the business. So, yes, marketers definitely impact revenue in a big way.

You’ve built a successful career despite this “crisis of credibility.” What does it take for a marketer to overcome the challenges you’ve mentioned? 

They need to demonstrate greater accountability and show how they are having a real impact on the bottom line. This is the only way to get support and respect from the other C-level peers, or what I like to call a seat at the revenue table. Accountability is the key to credibility, and in business this means using hard metrics to demonstrate impact.

It sounds like accountability and metrics are important, but aren’t marketers the ones with the creative brains? 

That’s exactly the criticism marketers need to combat. The CMO needs to be a businessperson first, and a marketer second. Many CMOs come from a project management or creative background, but the key is for marketers to understand and speak the quantitative and financial language of business.

What does it mean to speak “financial language of business?”

CMOs need to speak about business in business terms to their peers, using words and metrics like revenue, cash flow, and profitability. Softer metrics like brand awareness don’t have much clout outside the marketing department. Many marketers make the mistake of talking about lowering costs instead of talking about increasing revenue. Beyond that, they need to understand not just their own budget, but how that money is driving business. For instance, if the CEO wants to cut the marketing budget by 10%, the CMO should be able to accurately predict the bottom-line business consequences.

What impact does this have on daily life? 

Accountability is a fantastic driver of performance, so measuring marketing in terms of results will not only help marketers show their value, it’s also likely to help increase that value. Aiming for specific numbers forces marketers to focus their efforts around questions that drive bottom-line impact: How many leads am I bringing in? What is the quality of those leads? How many converted?

As much as possible, marketing needs to build predictive modeling that demonstrates their business case and the ROI that today’s actions will have down the road.

It sounds like we’re on the tip of a tidal wave of change. What do these changes mean for the future? 

I think we’re going to see a power shift in business as CMOs step up to level ground with the other C-suite executives. The resentment and disconnect between departments and roles will fade away. When everyone understands the methodologies used to measure progress and results, we can start mapping different goals on top of one another across departments and for the company as a whole. We’ll see a power shift, but it’s not a zero-sum equation with marketing taking credibility from someone else. Marketing’s rise will enable greater teamwork. Even though the weak economy is putting more pressure on marketers, I think they and their companies will emerge stronger because of it.

Thanks, Susanne. Is it O.K. for my readers to contact you? 

Absolutely. I can be reached at