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New CMO strategy: How to survive (and thrive)

By Josh Buchholtz and Rio Longacre
boss meeting with team in conference room

CMOs face extraordinary challenges, with less time than ever to get it right. For any new CMO, the first 100 days on the job are critical to success. This post—along with our 2024 CMO Outlook—acts as a handy guide for new CMOs on how to hit the ground running, providing practical tips for quick wins while navigating potential organizational land mines.

Across the corporate world, CMO tenure continues to decline, now down to an average of 40 months, over 50% less than the tenure of the average CEO and the lowest level in over a decade. This concerning trend prompts two key questions: What is driving turnover? And where should new CMOs focus to succeed and add impact quickly?

Based on discussions with many marketing leaders, we believe short-term success boils down to four key moves. Get these right and the chances of long-term success—and job tenure—increase exponentially:

  1. Gain enterprise and executive alignment—especially outside of marketing
  2. Listen to your customers, and set up repeatable processes to gather their feedback
  3. Create and execute an achievable strategy based on current organizational maturity and capabilities
  4. Assess and mitigate potential regulatory and privacy risks

The CMO conundrum: External challenges and internal conflicts

CMOs are under constant pressure to show value yet face significant constraints to create value. Pressure hits marketing leaders from all directions—external pressures are complex and dynamic, while internal pressures are limiting and disruptive. CMOs who successfully navigate these opposing forces will succeed.

External pressures

1. Complex government regulation

Tough new regulations and statutes are making it harder to go to market while increasing the risk of lawsuits and government scrutiny for marketing leaders. Regulations, mostly related to data privacy, are changing at a rapid pace. These changes are impacting how customer data is stored and shared, turning the marketing world on its head.

The consequences are real. A class-action lawsuit was levied on Amazon and Starbucks, alleging they collected customers’ personal information without first notifying them. This environment is creating a world where effective marketing becomes more difficult and riskier. Tools up to 80% of marketers and advertisers rely on to deliver personal experiences—cookies, trackers, and third-party data sources—are disappearing as new privacy laws come online. Getting this right is critical.

2. Dynamic customer expectations

CMOs continue to navigate a complex world of increased customer expectations. Not surprisingly, 38% of CMOs reveal that aligning marketing strategies with new and changing customer sentiment is challenging. A driver of this challenge is as new technologies mature and develop, so do the expectations of customers using them. Ten years ago, Netflix and Amazon created expectations of real-time value, hyper-relevance, and frictionless engagement. As a result, today’s customers demand real-time, curated experiences from all their favorite brands. Fast-forward to today, where the rapid adoption of GenAI and large language model tools is influencing and accelerating customer expectations. Customers expect to exert little to no effort to connect with products and services. Customers imagine a future in which AI—not marketing teams—tells them what they want. CMOs are grappling with a potential future where marketing plays a new and very different role in the lives of customers.

3. Evolving AdTech and MarTech landscape

CMOs face a marketing and advertising technology landscape that is collapsing and converging with the shift to first-party data strategies. CMOs must navigate the sheer scale of technology solutions; ChiefMarTec publishes an annual map of the marketing technology landscape and has outlined more than 11,000 MarTech solutions available in 2023. CMOs must also determine which solutions work best and offer the potential to scale and support long-term growth in the face of plunging addressability, less effective ads, lower conversions, and decreasing return on ad spend (RoAS). They must architect technology strategies to meet the needs of their customers—both present and future—often stuck with existing tools that may not necessarily be the right fit for current customer behaviors.

4. AI swirl

The fourth challenge for CMOs is what we deem an “AI swirl.” Needless to say, AI has dominated the narrative in 2023, and CMOs are squarely at the epicenter of its pressures. About 97% of business owners believe ChatGPT will help their business grow, but as of July 2023, only 35% of organizations were leveraging AI. For CMOs, content marketing, product marketing, and content production are common use cases for GenAI. That said, the challenge for CMOs is not “Why AI,” but “Why don’t we have AI now?” CMOs face pressure to adopt AI both externally from the market and internally across the C-suite. This pressure is often without a strategy or plan in place, resulting in more chaos—i.e., swirl—not effectiveness.

CMOs also battle conflicts internal to their organization. Keep in mind that CMOs have been battling value perception and alignment challenges for as long as the role has existed. At the same time, in many organizations, internal challenges have recently bubbled into real conflicts, which impede the opportunity to drive value for marketing stakeholders and to drive growth for brands at large. Looking across many organizations, we’ve observed three internal conflicts that add to the CMO burden:

Internal challenges

1. Limited executive support

The first challenge is the persistent lack of executive support and lack of executive alignment that the office of the CMO faces. In 2012, Fournaise conducted a global executive survey that found 80% of CEOs don’t trust or are unimpressed with their CMOs. Fast-forward to 2017, when a Harvard Business Review study concluded that 74% of CMOs believe their jobs don’t allow them to maximize their impact on the business. Further, in a 2021 survey, only 26% of CMOs said they are invited to attend board meetings regularly. And only 40% of CMOs are involved in critical decisions related to growth and long-term company value, for example, growth strategy and new product development. Old patterns exist and don’t seem to be changing.

2. Do more with less

The second internal challenge is the marketing budget itself. While varying across industries, a 2023 Gartner study revealed that 73% of CMOs believe they lack the budget to fully execute their 2023 strategy. Further, 75% of CMOs report being under pressure to cut MarTech spend in 2023 to deliver better ROI. “Do more with less” is another old marketing adage, but still a challenge that persists today.

3. Retaining talent

The last internal challenge is talent retention. In the post-COVID world of flexible work schedules and abundant freelance opportunities, talent is scarce and CMOs need to connect on a deeper level with their workers. In a 2021 survey of 25,000 marketing professionals, 48% admitted to planning to leave their jobs. From offering creative incentives to hybrid work environments, CMOs are implementing novel solutions to entice new workers and retain them.

Navigating the complexities as a new CMO

It’s not easy being a CMO. These external and internal pressures contribute to CMO turnover. New CMOs often have a hard time showing value before the inevitable timer runs out while facing a laundry list of complex questions needing to be solved:

  • How do I quickly show value?
  • How do I avoid past mistakes?
  • How do I grow my business through economic uncertainty?
  • What role will marketing play in the future success of our business?
  • How do I keep my customers happy and maintain advantage?
  • How does marketing stay relevant in an algorithm-driven world?
  • How do I build marketable audiences and campaigns to drive growth?
  • How do I maximize technology and data investments?
  • How do I build better marketing qualified leads (MQLs) and sales qualified leads (SQLs)?
  • How do I enable my teams to work better together while loving their work?

New CMO moves: Four ways to demonstrate value and build confidence

For new CMOs, the goal is to identify opportunities quickly, turn over the right rocks, and set direction with purpose. “Measured speed” is paramount—move fast, but with a tactical eye to get it right. To ease this challenging transition, we recommend four moves that CMOs can focus on to set up for success.

1. Build enterprise and executive alignment

Although inherently difficult, building executive and cross-functional alignment is the most important task of a new CMO. Rather than forging their own course in isolation, a successful CMO builds strategies that align with the company’s strategic plan. These CMOs often start with a listening tour, seeking to understand the current perception of marketing and what is needed to be successful. New CMOs should also learn who the internal players are, their needs and incentives, and where core functions exist, such as technology and data teams, which are often scattered across the organization. From there, the next step is to build alliances by emphasizing shared incentives (internal and customer-focused) with key internal partners to break down walls.

2. Listen to your customers

Many new executives jump right into strategy building. They’ve done this before, they know what’s right, they’ve been waiting for this opportunity, and they want to quickly show the CEO and the board they are confident leaders, trusted in their new role. While moving fast with confidence is not necessarily wrong, successful executives are decisive and patient. Effective marketing leaders listen to their customers to understand what needs are not being met, how customers can be better served, and what the brand means to them. A few weeks of intentional customer communication goes a long way to ensuring new CMOs have a strategy that will resonate to drive business and customer value.

3. Create and execute an achievable strategy given current maturity

Be bold, but also position yourself and your team for success. To do this, new CMOs must quickly understand current maturity across process, talent, data, and technology. What are we capable of doing today with existing investments? What do we need to do that we can’t? Where are our biggest barriers? A maturity framework is a tool new CMOs can use to identify key areas of focus, strengths, and weaknesses. Applying the framework can help anchor a marketing or growth strategy and instill confidence that progress is being made while keeping a critical eye on the bigger picture.

4. Shore up regulatory and privacy risks

While AI is getting all the buzz for good reason, a top concern of many CMOs should be the impact of the evolving privacy landscape on their ability to communicate. Many organizations already have strategies in place to navigate and comply with evolving data privacy laws, but a surprising number of organizations do not. It is therefore recommended that all new CMOs take time to connect with data and legal partners to understand the current landscape, what’s being done, and what work remains. It’s also important to engage with customers to understand their needs and expectations regarding data privacy. Last, build a strategy for first-party data that centers on building meaningful customer engagement in a value exchange for customer data. Nailing this value exchange is crucial as we enter a privacy-first world.

In summary

Successful new CMOs build trust, listen to customers, and bring informed decision-making to the table. These leaders move quickly to gain a firm understanding of their organization’s gaps and areas of opportunity, acting quickly to identify potential risks—both internal and external—and opportunities. CMOs who focus on these four moves greatly increase their chances of success and longevity.

Let’s solve together.