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Why your business should be led by the CMO

Marketers are motivated by the idea of growth and achievement, and given the authority, can transform a business’s fortunes

A CMO needs to get their colleagues to understand their vision, believe in it and be inspired to act on it. Photograph: Getty Images

A CMO needs to get their colleagues to understand their vision, believe in it and be inspired to act on it. Photograph: Getty Images


Great businesses have a clear vision for what they are going to achieve, the creativity to bring this to life for employees and customers, and the drive to make it happen. Company founders often provide this clarity and energy – even a talented leadership team won’t match the enthusiasm for the business from the person who came up with the idea in the first place. 

Dan White is the author of The Smart Marketing Book and The Soft Skills Book

A study of 3,326 businesses by New York University/Wharton School found that start-ups with a leader who is passionate about the business are much more likely to thrive. Apple lost its way when its spiritual leader, Steve Jobs, left in 1985, and only found its mojo again when he returned in 1997. Many of today’s biggest companies, including Amazon and Facebook, are still led by their founding entrepreneur.

How can organisations whose founders have departed maintain the momentum of the early days? Where do they find the inspiration to carry on growing, decade after decade? Without a compelling corporate vision, employees lose sight of why the company exists, leading to low motivation and commercial stagnation. In these situations it’s up to the chief marketing officer (CMO) to step up to the plate.

This week, on the Inside Marketing podcast, Dan White, author of The Smart Marketing Book and The Soft Skills Book, joins us to discuss how CMOs can lead the way. Listen now: 

Marketers tend to be optimistic, enthusiastic and motivated by the idea of growth and achievement. They have an entrepreneurial spirit and, given the authority, can transform a business’s fortunes.

Jim Stengel, global marketing officer for Procter & Gamble between 2001 and 2008, was the driving force behind the company’s success over this period, during which sales revenue doubled. 

Stengel championed the idea that P&G brands should have a purpose – they should strive to make a positive difference to the everyday lives of their customers. This is believed to have had a major impact on staff motivation and helped inspire highly compelling marketing campaigns. The Pampers brand, for example, went from being a product that’s good at soaking up moisture to an ally parents rely on to keep their babies healthy and happy. The brand’s value grew from $3.4 billion to $9 billion while Stengel was in charge. How many chief executives, chief financial officers or chief technology officers can claim to have had an equivalent impact on their business?

CMOs are natural born leaders, but is now the right time to stage a boardroom coup, and has Covid-19 helped or hindered the ascendance of the CMO? Most businesses have been affected by the pandemic.

CMOs are the heirs apparent for corporate leadership

Companies that have been damaged need to reset their thinking, relying on their CMOs to chart the course for a return to growth, albeit with limited budgets. 

Some businesses have benefited from the pandemic. Before 2020, Zoom meant the rocket shaped ice-lolly fondly remembered from childhood. Now we know it as a video conferencing brand that has soared, with millions of people using it to keep up with colleagues and loved ones.

For Zoom, it is again up to the CMO to take the lead and determine how the company can leverage this windfall and ensure the brand remains an integral part of everyday life as the pandemic diminishes.

It’s clear that CMOs are the heirs apparent for corporate leadership, and the time is right for them to stake their claim, but what qualities do they need to be successful? Like anyone mounting a leadership challenge, the CMO will need to create a compelling vision for the company’s future, inspire a followership and illustrate how their plans will reap rewards.

Great marketers are futurists. They can imagine how their company could thrive by addressing the growing frustrations, needs and desires of potential customers. Other board members rarely have this ability. It’s the CMO who can say, “This is what the world needs, and we’re best placed to deliver it.” The vision might emerge, fully formed, in the CMO’s brain one morning. If not, there are plenty of tools they can draw on, such as the SWOT/TOWS framework.

This tool works well because is that it encourages CMOs to find “golden strategies” that take what the company does best and use it to leverage emerging growth opportunities. Creative thinking is still required but the framework ensures it is pointed in a fruitful direction.

Inspiring followers

However brilliant the vision is, nothing will become of it if unless the CMO can get their colleagues to understand it, believe in it and be inspired to act on it.

Kodak engineer Steve Sasson invented the digital camera in 1975. According to Sasson, company management agreed that the concept was ingenious but asked him not to tell anyone about it. Kodak saw itself as a manufacturer of photographic film, paper and chemicals and treated digital photography as the enemy. 

Kodak’s leaders did not have the imagination to see the bigger opportunity. If they had, the company may have avoided bankruptcy. But Steve Sasson was an engineer, not a marketer. A strong CMO would have seen what the rest of the Kodak board couldn’t and convinced them to reshape the business to lead the digital photography revolution.

CMOs deserve to be seen as the driving force within their company

To succeed, marketers need to influence a wide range of other functions including sales, finance, external agencies and market research. CMOs often let themselves down when they communicate with the CFO.

Without convincing the CFO to make the necessary investments, the CMO will get nowhere. 

Marketers must learn how to couch their proposals in financial terms. For every euro spent, the CFO will want to know how many the company will get back and when. CFOs do not respond well to, “Trust me, it will be worth it”, yet this is often the CMO’s main line of argument. Marketers should spend more time learning the language of finance – how to talk about costs, returns, timescales and risks.

Marketers could support their proposals when requesting investment in marketing activity by creating an estimate of returns from marketing efforts over a two-year period. CMOs able to illustrate both short- and long-term effects have a better chance of securing budgets.

CMOs deserve to be seen as the driving force within their company. They just need to create a compelling vision for the future, inspire a followership and illustrate how their plans will reap rewards.

One of the world’s most successful companies over the past 50 years is Nintendo. Having made playing cards and toys since 1889, the company expanded into video games in 1972. Since then, it has had four highly-effective presidents. 

You probably haven’t heard their names because they all gave the limelight to the company’s talisman, Shigeru Miyamoto. Miyamoto-san has invariably been given the honour of announcing the company’s most exciting new products, which he does with an infectious, child-like enthusiasm. He is the company’s CMO in all but name (his recent job titles include head of studio, representative director and creative fellow). 

His vision for the games (Mario, Zelda and countless others) and consoles (Nintendo Wii, Super Nintendo) that would broaden the appeal of Nintendo products means he has contributed more to the company’s growth than any other employee. 

Other organisations should look to Nintendo’s example and appreciate the importance of people who understand consumer priorities and give them control over not just marketing communications, but also innovation strategy and overall corporate direction.

CMOs, this is your time. Take charge and bring the rest of your organisation with you.

Dan White is the author of The Smart Marketing Book and The Soft Skills Book

Inside Marketing is a series brought to you by Dentsu and Irish Times Media Solutions, exploring the issues and opportunities facing the world of media and marketing. For more information, visit