The Fading Role of the CMO: What Marketing Leaders Should Do Now



For decades, becoming a CMO was the pinnacle of any marketer’s career journey. The opportunity to be at the helm of a company’s messaging, content, and community management used to be the thing to strive for.

But now, the limelight that once surrounded the role of a CMO is dimming more and more as time passes.

Over the last few years, due to a number of reasons, the CMO position has been experiencing a rocky transformation. And we’re seeing this play out among some of the world’s most well-known brands.

This past January, Gap’s CMO left after only less than a year into her position, and the company has stated that it will be redefining the role of the CMO looking ahead. 

Last year, Taco Bell’s Global Chief Brand Officer (who was instrumental in helping the restaurant brand post a seven percent increase in same-store sales growth in 2019 Q2 earnings) resigned. Instead of seeking a direct replacement, the company decided to split this role’s duties between two SVPs: one for marketing, and the other for advertising and brand engagement.

McDonald’s followed a similar route when its Global CMO departed in 2019 as well. The company opted to create an SVP of global marketing and an SVP of marketing technology, rather than hire another CMO.

So what does this mean for existing CMOs, and those who aspire to become one?

Here, we’ll take a look at the factors affecting the CMO “changing of the guard” and offer insights into what marketing leaders can do now in order to prepare for a possible post-CMO world in the future.

The Problems CMOs are Facing

The transition away from the role of the CMO has been gradual and due to a number of challenges that CMOs have been facing in the past several years. Here are the ones impacting CMOs the most.

The Pace of Technology

Historically, the role of the CMO was focused on branding, PR, and advertising. However, this position has evolved in the face of the growing availability of customer data and the smart technology used for targeting, personalization, and attribution.

As technology, such as artificial intelligence and automation, continues to swamp marketers with information, the CMO position will become more varied and specific to individuals and organizations able to effectively utilize them, and swiftly apply insight to strategy, as well as address business challenges and improve ROI based on data intelligence.

In fact, according to a study by the World Federation of Advertisers, in partnership with research agency 2CV and 28 national advertiser associations around the world, 77 percent of senior marketers predict a rise in the need to manage digital martech and platforms and 74 percent expect data ethics to become more important. Additionally, a further 73 percent expect data analytics to become more important.

The Struggle with “Short-Termism”

According to Dentsu Aegis Network’s 2019 global CMO and senior-level marketers survey, CMOs are struggling with “short-termism,” where they feel mounting pressure to provide results on a short timeline, along with a lack of budgets to deliver on their goals and achieve transformation. 

Among the 1,000 surveyed across 10 markets, 64 percent said they expect to feel further pressure to turn out concrete results in the short term. And this short-termism carries over to strategic roadmaps, as almost half reported they only plan ahead for just two years, or less, reflecting a business focus on near term goals.

Part of the issue is monetary. 50 percent of CMOs ranked an inability to secure long-term investments among the top three barriers to performing well. And 41 percent of respondents stated that their budgets will be flat, or shrink over the next 12 months. In some cases, the purse-tightening comes despite expectations of healthy business, as 64 percent forecast revenue will grow over the same period.

As budgets come under pressure, CMOs are having to perform the balancing act of optimization, transformation, and long-term brand building.

A Misunderstanding of the Actual Role of a CMO

The position of the CMO has become so multidimensional that a Google search for it will probably leave you more confused than educated. 

The scope of the position has evolved to include elements of corporate and product strategy, with a strong focus on driving and demonstrating business growth.

But this constant evolution has created misconceptions about the role that have placed CMOs in a position that leaves companies relying on them for a lot of various things, from brand management to sales to digital transformation to cross-functional collaboration efforts. 

We’ve even heard of a CMO in the restaurant industry being tasked to pick the thread count for napkins for a location opening.

Yes, CMOs do have the ability to juggle a number of priorities both within and outside of the realm of marketing. But when someone gets pulled in so many directions, it can be difficult to have control over and excel in your role. 

Many CMOs are finding it difficult to shoulder the blizzard of varied demands and responsibilities descending upon them, and unfortunately end up leaving their post because of the overwhelm. 

In fact, according to a report by Winmo, the average tenure for CMOs is 43 months, with CMOs more likely to move up and out of positions between 30 to 45 months. CMO tenure is also less than half that of a CEO, which averages 7.2 years, compared to a CMO’s 3.6 years.

What Can CMOs Do Now

Although headlines have led many to believe that CMOs are no longer as necessary to businesses as they once were, CMOs are still extremely valuable. And with such a broad skill set, they have the expertise to step into a number of positions.

In fact, a lot of CMOs are actually less concerned about the title, and more interested in what skills and requirements are compulsory in a leader to execute modern marketing strategies. New positions that have come to light are often a complement to or an extension of the chief marketing role. 

Here are just some of the roles that CMOs evolving in their field have transitioned into.

Chief Marketing Technology Officer

The emergence of marketing automation platforms, like Marketo, Constant Contact, and HubSpot, with their addition to traditional database marketing, customer relationship management systems, and social media marketing tools, has given rise to a new role: the Chief Marketing Technology Officer. 

A cross between a traditional CMO and CTO, the CMTO is focused on helping companies make sense of and utilize vast amounts of customer and market data by using significant technology and analytical expertise.

The key focus areas of the CMTO are managing various technologies bolted together to enable this analysis, transforming social data into actionable insights and sales, and ultimately, delivering coordinated campaigns across multiple channels, simultaneously.

A few ways CMTOs are valuable include:

  • Managing the tech stack
  • Breaking free from IT-marketing deadlock
  • Understanding cross-channel interaction
  • Enabling agile marketing
  • Dealing with new marketing technology still to come

Chief Growth Officer

Chief Growth Officers expand the traditional CMO mindset by harnessing the executive marketers’ extensive knowledge of customer desires and demands in order to accelerate business growth. This growth-focused mindset goes beyond traditional sales agreements and marketing tactics and leverages existing business models to create new business models and value chains that offer greater potential for profit.

If you haven’t made the mental leap to focusing on growth, don’t worry about it. As a CMO, you’re already almost there. You know how to get your target market’s attention. You know your brand. And you know how to connect with your audience. Using this knowledge to obtain sustained growth requires a shift in strategy—one that strengthens the performance link between marketing and sales.

Chief Customer Officer

The role of the Chief Customer Officer is organized around the customer. 

CMOs are evolving from simple data capture and batch-and-blast marketing tactics to develop customer intimacy, driving deeper and lasting customer engagement. The CCO’s influence reaches across marketing, sales, call centers, customer support, billing, and other areas where a customer-centric approach is necessary.

The two central goals of a CCO—to unify all customer initiatives throughout different functions and to inject a new way of thinking and acting throughout an organization—are no small feats. 

While assigning a CMO these tasks can be successful, having a CCO sends the clearest signal about the importance of the customer, as well as ensures that someone senior is looking at every decision exclusively through the lens of customer experience, accelerating a company’s transformation to customer centricity.


While, traditionally, CMOs have not been “first in line” for a CEO position, the new demands placed on businesses by customers mean that the insights of these marketing leaders have become increasingly valuable for the highest role in leadership.

CMOs are extremely well positioned to steer companies through the significant amount of digital disruption that is occurring, as well as make the correct links between what customer data tells them and where they should steer an organization.

And unlike others in the C-suite (such as the COO, CIO, and CFO), CMOs are in a predominantly “external facing” role. 

Other executives are often more focused on operations within the company. 

This means that the CMO holds the expertise to understand the vast changes occurring in the market and can help the business deliver on customer expectations.

El Pollo Loco CEO Bernard Acoca (who has a strong marketing background with well-known brands, like Starbucks and Pizza Hut and had a stint as CMO for the Americas at L’Oréal) is a great example of a CMO who took advantage of his marketing expertise to drive success. 

In the time since he came onboard in 2018, Acoca has overseen an investment in digital media and marketing channels that has modernized the 40-year-old restaurant chain that was still spending 98 percent of its media budget on TV and print media before his arrival. 

And the new strategy has yielded results. In its most recent quarterly results, El Pollo Loco saw positive sales comps in June and July, after setbacks at the beginning of the quarter due to COVID-19. 

Additionally, since the start of the calendar year, the restaurant brand has tripled sales generated from digital channels.

More than ever, CMOs are feeling the pressure to drive innovation and manage a blizzard of varied demands, while needing to provide results with tight budgets and in short timelines. But in light of all these pressures, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the role of the CMO is dead. 

Rather, it’s fading—not into obscurity, but into more specific and defined roles that allow CMOs to either refocus their craft, or step into the highest level of leadership.

This makes it clear that the “trend” of CMOs leaving their posts or being let go is not such bad news as it seems for existing marketing leaders, or those working to build a career in marketing. 

Actually, it’s quite the opposite. 

The C-suite shuffles and organizational restructurings illustrate the fact that many companies are struggling to find candidates who possess the highly diverse skill set required to be a successful CMO in the digital age.

Of course, it is still possible to effectively fill the traditional and constantly developing role of the CMO. But keep in mind that, as internal changes occur, this might well be the role that companies might seek to change first over others. So in order to prepare yourself, consider focusing on a business driven aspect.

Whether that’s technology and innovation, growth, or customer experience, having expertise in a particular field aimed at enhancing a business is going to be essential. 

You could even utilize your marketing experience to take the helm as CEO, and drive success through your understanding of the market and ability to deliver on the changing expectations of customers.

Whatever the future holds for CMOs, there is one thing that is for sure: the realm of marketing is an increasingly complex and specialized environment and an evolution is imminent for those leading the way. 

Without doubt, CMOs are more than capable of handling the change. And the way in which they do so will determine how their careers essentially progress in the future.


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