CMOs: The good, the bad, and the opportunity for reinvention

For years, the influence of the CMO role has been in decline. But as more brands fast-track digital transformation in response to the extraordinary challenges of 2020, these senior leaders have an opportunity to rise to the occasion by reinventing themselves and, in the process, growing their businesses.

The role of the CMO was evolving and fracturing long before the pandemic changed the landscape. In 2019, 30 Fortune 1000 board members anonymously told us how they viewed responsibilities of the CMO.

We fed the transcripts to a topic-modeling algorithm and used human evaluation to turn 21 hours of interviews into a single paragraph.1

We found that the role of the CMO was poorly defined; that although boards had high expectations, CMOs were constrained by limited access and influence; and that boards wanted to see hard proof that marketing initiatives were advancing core business goals.

Given that just under 3% of S&P 1500 board members have marketing experience,3 CMOs need both an opportunity to gain support for their new marketing initiatives and a way to share quantifiable results back to the board.

They need a way to showcase how their role drives growth. Sixty-eight percent of CMOs say that being the growth driver is either their primary mandate or one of the highest expectations set by senior management and the board.4

The time to act is now. In the face of unprecedented volatility, the CMO doesn’t just have permission to hit fast forward on digital transformation. They have a mandate to respond to a world in flux.

We talked to more than 20 senior marketing leaders across categories about how managing through uncertainty has given them a chance to lead a renewed focus on growth and innovation, and to take risks that wouldn’t have seemed possible a year ago.

Today, a marketing strategy is only as strong as the data that drives it. The pandemic has made clear to stakeholders that, to be ready for whatever’s next, marketing teams need robust data and the ability to act on it in real time.

“Sometimes the process manages the people instead of the people managing the process. It’s inherently backwards looking versus forward looking. In a crisis [you are allowed to] look beyond that. ... We got permission to move outside of established processes and systems and think differently.”

— Head of Marketing, CPG Company

In response to this year’s calls for change, many brands strengthened their existing commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion. By setting new KPIs for improving retention, increasing representation in leadership, expanding recruitment, and ensuring inclusive creative practices, CMOs can raise the bar across the industry.

“We have been accelerating our investments there as a company in terms of how we look at our processes and practices internally but also in how we signal externally the importance of those issues to us as well.”

— CMO, Automotive Brand

Because of the pandemic, brands have been forced to execute multiyear plans in the span of a few months. With more people buying online, many companies increased their investment in analytics and digital capabilities to gain actionable insights into fast-changing customer needs and behaviors.5

A look at the last three decades of marketing literature reveals a shift already underway. Use of the term “marketing strategy” has declined over the last few years, having grown to encompass a multitude of functions beyond creative communications, while terms like “data strategy” have steadily climbed.

“The interesting part of its evolution is that the CMO role has had a greater focus on analytics over the past few years: analytics that drive business decisions in all forms. This has been accelerated due to COVID-19.”

— CMO, Automotive Brand

In response to rapidly shifting shopping behaviors, brands were forced to adjust road maps for digital adoption themselves. Rising demand for contactless payment options and a greater range of omnichannel fulfillment methods, like curbside pickup, made innovation not only a time-sensitive priority, but an invaluable growth driver in a competitive dynamic market.

“The magic of contactless is that the first time you do this, you think, ‘I can’t believe this worked.’ Once you get people to do it a few times, it becomes habitual. … The traffic of those things will never return to the way it was before.”

— Head of Marketing, Financial Institution

Measuring and tracking brand health is still as important as ever. “What we are focused on in marketing more specifically is the health of the brand, that we are still generating awareness and consideration, that we have a solid foundation to build upon as we look to the future,” said one CMO in the auto industry. To achieve that, brands must forge strong relationships with customers based on what they want, even as it changes.

“I don’t know what the remainder of the year and next year will look like, but … if we remain out in the market with a strong brand and messaging, it will serve us well.”

— CMO, Automotive Brand

Many of the problems facing today’s CMO can be solved by accelerating digital adoption.

But to win advocates for marketing, the CMO will need to define their expertise in terms of the growth they can control. Deloitte has tested five archetypes that can help marketing leaders highlight their unique contributions. These approaches will not only help CMOs meet today’s challenges, but also help them be ready for what’s next.

1. Google/Deloitte, U.S., “Project Mountaintop,” 2019.

2. Deloitte, The Board Practices Report, 2018.

3. Deloitte, “The CMO Shift to Gaining Business Lift,” Dec. 2016.

4. “When and How Board Members with Marketing Experience Facilitate Firm Growth,” Journal of Marketing, vol. 82, Issue 5, Sept. 1, 2018.

5. Google/Deloitte, U.S., “Project Mountaintop,” 2020.

6. Google Ngram, 1990–2019.

7. Spencer Stuart, “CMOs on Boards: Is Change Coming?” 2019.

8. Google Data, Global English, March 18–May 16, 2020 vs. March 18–May 16, 2019.