Well before the world was embroiled in a never-ending state of flux, chief marketing officers were having their own battle with change. According to a study by Spencer Stuart, the average tenure of a CMO fell from 43 months in 2018 to 41 months in 2019.
This decline continues their dubious honor as the shortest tenured member of the C-suite. By comparison, CEOs had an average lifespan of 76 months in the same study.
So what’s the issue here? Are marketing executives flighty and inconsistent, unable to commit to a company for more than a few years? Are they just not good at their jobs and forced to move on as soon as their colleagues find them out?
No doubt there are edge cases that match both those descriptions, but overall it’s not the CMOs who are the problem, it’s the processes they’re beholden to.
Most marketing organizations, despite executing sophisticated digital campaigns, use old-school process management techniques that make it nearly impossible for a new CMO to quickly demonstrate their value. To break the cycle, marketing executives must steer clear of traditional waterfall project management and embrace real agility.
Marketing’s Problem Lies With Process, Not People
When a marketing leader joins a new department, they’re often faced with siloed functional teams. These groups have deep subject matter expertise in areas like design, strategy, email, and events, and need to pass a large project back and forth between them dozens of times before it’s done. On top of that, each of those teams is saddled with antiquated work management approaches that don’t jive with the complexity of their work.
Waterfall approaches to project management try to mitigate risk through hyper-detailed upfront planning. In fact, waterfall project management gets its name from the way work flows from one stage to another, and going backwards is so difficult it’s like trying to push against the force of Niagara Falls. Projects executed this way spend weeks (sometimes months) documenting a project plan, but the planning process is so lengthy, and the projects being created are so huge, that by the time anything gets done the great idea that launched it all has gone stale.
Marketing’s job is to engage with customers and eventually get them to take a profit-driving action. CMOs could once get away with launching one or two giant campaigns per year and achieving these goals, but modern customers have become accustomed to instant gratification. They want personalized messaging, next-day delivery, and tailored offers, and they want it all in real time.
Most marketing leaders understand this shift (it’s been decades in the making, after all). They know what their teams should be doing, but processes keep them from accelerating their connections to customers. As they struggle to get work done and prove their value, the terrible CMO churn cycle kicks in.
When project scope and budgets balloon, a marketing leader can’t show the impact of their presence. They begin to experience friction with their peers and before you know it the 41-month window has closed, and a new leader is on their way in.
How CMOs Can Extend Their Lifespans
Instead of diving into huge waterfall projects (rebrand! website relaunch!), the first priority for a new CMO needs to be a fundamental overhaul of the way work gets done, from strategic annual plans to daily tactical activities.
The driving force behind this shift should be agile ways of working, which are designed to make systems more responsive to change rather than married to huge unmoving plans. But that’s a big rock to move on it’s own, and CMOs need to deliver value immediately, not after a months-long transformation effort.
To do so, here are five changes CMOs can implement now.
1. Align Marketing to Organizational Goals
New CMOs simply can’t grasp the full scope of what’s happening without effective visualization. Every team, department, and function needs to show what they’re working on — everything they’re working on — in an easy to understand format. A non-spreadsheet tool can be useful for this, as it helps people avoid getting too granular too fast. A tool that mimics simple sticky notes — like Trello, Miro, Mural, and Jamboard — is usually best.
Once marketing leadership understands the work being done across the department, they need to make sure it’s the right work, meaning it’s aligned to their larger objectives, the success of which will determine whether they beat the 41-month average.
OKRs are particularly useful for this, but the important thing is to tie the activities of each team to larger goals.
Once you have each team’s list of work, tag each item with its aligning goal. If there’s no clear connection, maybe it shouldn’t get done. This helps marketers make sure what’s being worked on is contributing to bigger picture objectives that keep the CMO around longer.
2. Say No to Non-Value Adding Work
Once you achieve alignment between work and goals, don’t let your teams get sidetracked by work that doesn’t fit. Marketing’s position as a service function makes it all too easy to take on all incoming requests, but that dilutes everyone’s focus and effectiveness.
Instead, use your new visualization tool to show external requestors what else marketing is doing. Oftentimes once this scope becomes clear stakeholders realize what work their awesome idea is putting at risk and may withdraw it altogether.
If, on the other hand, the incoming request really is more important than what’s currently going on, the conversation should center on what work will be paused to make room for the new activity.
Accepting every new idea to accommodate colleagues might make marketing seem like an amenable partner, but when all those requests disappear into a black hole and show no progress for months, they look a whole lot worse.
To avoid this churn-inducing scenario, CMOs and other marketing leaders must get comfortable turning down work that doesn’t align to their priorities and pausing work to make room for incoming high-priority projects.
3. Value Outcomes Over Outputs
As part of this shifting perspective, marketing leaders need to evaluate success differently. Put simply: value outcomes over outputs.
Teams, projects, and individuals should be rewarded for their impact on key departmental goals, not for keeping busy for 40 hours a week. Especially in the newly remote world, CMOs need to value the work being done, not the time someone has spent in front of their computer.
Along these same lines, there should be no expectation that all emails or instant messages will be answered within moments of receipt; if employees are answering email all day, when will they do the amazing work that achieves the CMO’s key objectives?
Productivity shouldn’t mean instant response, it should mean contributing the agreed-upon work at top quality within needed timelines. Or, if that becomes impossible, communicating the problem quickly and openly so it can be solved before it becomes a crisis. Nothing supports this behavior more, or undermines it more effectively, than the way leaders talk and act.
4. Embrace Minimum Viable Campaigns
As marketers become comfortable with doing great work instead of doing a lot of work, tenure-minded CMOs can also help guide them to embrace the minimum viable campaign (MVC). Modeled on the minimum viable product (MVP) concept from the lean startup movement, these campaigns are small yet hold great potential.
To design them the right way, find the smallest amount of work inside a larger campaign that, when done, could still deliver value. Then go do that work, and only that work, first.
Once it’s live out in the world, track its performance. Based on the data, iterate on your initial MVC release. If it’s going well, put more resources behind it, expand to more channels, grow the campaign. If it’s underperforming, make changes and track their impact, or simply walk away if it’s a major dud.
Fortunately, even if an MVC is a total failure, it brings valuable lessons to inform future work; and, as a bonus, it represents a much smaller scope of work than a traditional marketing campaign that sucks up months of work before spectacularly failing.
The goal of new CMOs using an MVC is to steer clear of “Big Bang” campaigns that eat up tons of budget, take months to get out the door, and might blow up in their face.
5. Set Clear Goals and Let Your Teams Crush Them
Finally, new marketing executives need to embrace the concept of empowered teams that’s at the core of the agile mindset.
Leaders should focus on setting goals, clearly communicating them, and then getting out of the way so their teams can achieve them.
This requires a fine balance between team autonomy and goal alignment, but walking that line should be the focus of an effective (and long-term) CMO.
This new approach to the marketing process can have a profound change in marketing work habits that shortens launch times, emphasizes continuous delivery of customer value, and turns marketing into a value-adding, customer-centric hub of excellence.
All of which allows the CMO’s impact to be felt within six months, not three years.