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Signs It's Time to Fire Your CMO

Signs It's Time to Fire Your CMO Julie Roehm

Since Sergio Zyman took on the title of chief marketing officer (CMO) at Coca-Cola, most anyone with a hint of ambition has been gunning for this title. But in today's marketing environment, there is enormous pressure on CMOs to deliver ROI, consumer engagement, quarterly results, positive tracking scores and water cooler conversation-worthy Super Bowl advertising. It's no wonder the average tenure of the CMO is under two years.

Yes, business pressures are inevitable. Sales will dip, products will fail and customers will leave. But the mark of a good leader is clarity and tenacity in the midst of these pressure-filled situations that you will face. Regardless of your role, as a leader in a marketing organization you'll need grace under fire.

If you are the CMO, here are some tell-tale signs that you may want to pack a bag… a big bag.

Author notes: Julie Roehm is a marketing communications consultant. Read full bio

When was the last time you spoke with your consumers? Not the ones you watched behind the glass, but actual people in the marketplace shopping, buying and experiencing your brand? If you can't remember, I recommend Tumi luggage.

Marketing is the voice of the customer inside the organization. It is not enough for you to rely on data points to describe the people who make your brand possible. People have emotions, needs and values. They live a life in which your brand is likely a tiny component of their existence. Understanding your place in their life and (hopefully) how you make it better, is essential. 

If you find yourself describing your consumers as women 25-45 with two children, an income of $60,000, living in B counties who own a home, you may need a tune up. 

If the idea of getting deeper into what drives her as a person sounds inefficient and immeasurable, you may be in the wrong job. 

If you think that this person looks like a million other people or, worse, if you think of the brand in terms of what you want, start writing that transfer notice. 

If you know the first names of a group of your consumers, talk to them on a regular basis and can share insights into their lives that are relevant to them and your business, then rock on!

Can you describe your brand the way you describe a friend or do you describe your brand in terms of features and benefits? If you fall into the latter camp, we suggest packing raingear, as you may not be shipped off to a sunny climate.

If you would describe your brand as adventurous, independent, athletic, free-spirited and confident, then you are onto something.

If you describe it as able to go off-road, with wish-bone suspension, low-end torque for towing your boat and a 100,000-mile warranty, then you may consider expanding your description set.

The best brands today are living entities that evoke an emotional response resulting in a sale. Marketers must be able to take the manufacturing and product elements and marry them with the human elements to create that visceral and profitable reaction.

If the CMO isn't able to communicate this, then no one else will either.

If you think the hard part of the relationship is getting to the altar (or the acquisition of the customer) then you are disillusioned (or the luckiest person alive). And given this proclivity, you only need to pack one bag because it is doubtful anyone will be traveling with you.

If you believe that the best relationships are the ones that we work hardest at then you are on the right track.

Building a relationship between your customer and your brand is a labor of love. If you don't love the pursuit of finding ways to keep that relationship fresh and interesting, then this is not the job for you.

Let's illustrate this point. 

If your idea of innovation and building freshness into your customer relationship is bringing out last year's event plan and simply looking for ways to update it, then you need a tune-up. This is a bit like getting out your holiday gift list from last year and deciding to give everyone the same item, just in a different color. Customers are constantly evolving and growing. Their needs and interests do the same.

Do you find yourself starting off your Monday staff meeting with "did you see what brand X did?" followed by the refrain of, "why aren't we doing this?"

If so, then you may be falling into the symmetrical warfare trap. Copying your competitors is a game that is fraught with issues. Staying true to your strategy, knowing your customer and designing plans that build that relationship will lead you to places that your competition is not.

If you are not the CMO but want to be, here are some general principles of leadership that will come in handy. First, remember that the CMO is a key leadership position within the organization. They are the voice of the consumer for the organization and they are the stewards of the brand.

Providing clarity around these two points is essential, as is the tenacity to stick to this clarity when the pressure is on.

The following four trademarks take a look at your ability to gut out the tough job of being a CMO. It's not a job for the faint of heart, and the demands on this position have increased more than any other C-level position in the organization over the past decade.

With an average CMO tenure of 23.5 months and shrinking, it's no wonder that people are becoming more risk-averse. It may be possible to beat the average tenure by simply doing nothing. After all, inertia and the status quo have proven to be a fairly safe bet in corporate America, right?


Sitting back and doing nothing won't cut it anymore. First, you can't hide from the sales and profit results staring you in the face quarterly. Second, you can't hide from the consumer's true feelings. The web has changed this. The consumer's voice is louder than ever before. Gone is the marketer's ability to mask the truth with focus groups and surveys.

It is all too easy to fall into the either/or trap in the marketing world. You focus either on selling more units or building the brand's equity. You focus on gaining market share or you work on profitability.

But the best leaders are "both/and" people. They understand how to marry data and creativity, brand and sales growth, customer acquisition and loyalty, share and profitability.

Marketing and advertising are not synonyms. Instead of being wowed by the big idea, good marketing leaders are wowed by how it delivers the strategy and builds the consumer relationship.

If you are constantly asking, "Why are we doing this?" then your tactics are getting in the way of your strategy.

Fundamentally, good CMOs know the difference between marketing and branding and the best know what not to do, regardless of how exciting the idea.

Are you paralyzed by fear of doing something wrong? Have the headlines of fired CMOs become a devil on your shoulder, causing you to second-guess all of your decisions? Do you require complete information to make any decision at all?

If you find that the answers to these questions are increasingly yes, then it may be time to reassess your own strategy (or that of the company in which you are working). You need to know whether you or your company is a source of fear if you are going to lead a marketing organization and deliver results. Fear and second-guessing are the enemies of innovation and progress in marketing.

Even though marketing has grown more and more complex, at the heart it is a very simple game. It's all about your consumer, your brand and the relationship between the two.

As a marketing leader, you will succeed if you have a relentless passion to know your customer, understand your brand and build a profitable relationship between the two and… you eliminate any activity that falls outside of this equation!

In the end, we have offered both signs of a failing CMO as well as a few points from which to conduct a personal fitness test for marketers wanting to be CMO -- to know if you have the right stuff to withstand the scrutiny and be prepared for the onslaught -- but really…

"It's a very simple game, you throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball." -- Bull Durham

Julie Roehm is SVP Marketing, "Chief Storyteller" at SAP. Formerly, as a Marketing Strategy Consultant she served companies in all industries, of all sizes. Her client list includes, Credit Suisse, Time Inc., BIAP, Acxiom, ad agencies, and...

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