The year is 2024, and more than 50 percent of American product purchases are made through e-commerce thanks in part to the rise of "app-tapping" (waving your phone to purchase a product) and speak-to-purchase ads that merge TV and streaming content with in-home digital assistants. Video games and social media are as popular as ever, though more and more people prefer to hang out in virtual-reality "PlaceScapes," where savvy marketers are starting to invest. The process once known as advertising is nearly unrecognizable as companies rely on artificial intelligence to disseminate targeted ads based on billions of data inputs, though tougher privacy laws and the proliferation of ad blockers continue to pose challenges.
Ready or not, marketing is about to enter a new era — or, rather, a new new era — and the role of the chief marketing officer will change right alongside it. Following a period in which big data, e-commerce, and social media have upended the rules of marketing, brands that survived have likely rebuilt their marketing teams to adapt. Now, as the tools for automation and data analysis become more accessible and powerful, and the media landscape continues to splinter, senior marketers are increasingly held accountable for business growth. Some companies, such as Coca-Cola, have even replaced the CMO title with a new one: chief growth officer.
Eight CMOs weigh in on what it will take to succeed in the years ahead
"Some of the smartest companies out there are making sure that if there's no change in remit for the CMO, there's going to be someone responsible," says Keith Johnston, VP and research director serving the CMO at Forrester Research. "You can't drive growth unless you can bring your brand, your product, your customer experience, and everything else together into one system. The customer today is too much in control for those things to be disparate within an organization."
What will be the hallmarks of a successful CMO five years in the future? We reached out to marketing leaders from across industries to get a sense of what it will take to lead a next-generation marketing organization. Our interviews yielded a variety of common refrains, but the main takeaway is that marketers will have to wear many hats to keep their organizations aligned toward a clear, compelling brand purpose and focused on delivering a consistently excellent customer experience that will lead to repeat business, positive word of mouth, and ultimately, business growth.
"Of course [the CMO of the future] will need to know marketing," says Raja Rajamannar, chief marketing and communications officer at Mastercard. "But, in addition, they need to know business, they need to know finance, they need to know data, they need to know digital and technology, they need to know communications and PR, and they need to be thorough with legal. In short, you are not looking at a functional specialist in marketing, but a general manager who has experience across multiple functions, with a strong grounding in marketing."
Here are insights from eight CMOs on what it will take to succeed in the years ahead.
Hands on the Keyboard: Procter & Gamble
With roughly 65 brands in its portfolio, Procter & Gamble has taken radical steps to evolve its marketing organization over the past few years. The consumer product goods giant has shed dozens of brands that weren't right for its portfolio; expanded its in-house capability in areas like data analysis, media planning, and content development; and moved from fixed agency partnerships toward in-house capabilities and an ecosystem of partners deployed on an as-needed basis.
"We're reinventing how we work with agencies, which is less outsourcing and more 'hands on the keyboard,'" says Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer at P&G. "Every brand needs to operate like a start-up; by doing so, they're very close to the consumers on a day-to-day basis."
As an example of how P&G's brands now operate, Pritchard points to SK-II, a beauty products brand that generates more than a billion dollars in revenue and is managed by an agile team comprising three essential functions: hipster, hustler, and hacker. "The hipster designs, the hustler creates demand, and the hacker is engaged with data analytics," Pritchard explains. "And they are constantly connecting with the consumer with new sources of content, and they're operating with a performance-marketing mindset, using data and analytics on an everyday basis."
The future CMO role, Pritchard predicts, will be characterized by the ability to manage a "fluid and functionless" organization. Most companies, he maintains, have operated for many years in a functional manner: the marketing function, the market research function, the design function, the sales function, and the IT function. He believes these functions will increasingly blend together, creating a functionless business model. What will matter most are skills, experiences, and passion, versus a specific job designation.
"The CMO of the future is going to be adept at constantly disrupting their own way of operating," Pritchard says. "You need to adopt the mindset of constant experimentation, and then scale. … You have to be extremely adept at influencing and leading internally, and extremely adept at external connections. More than anything, a very integrated, unified way of operating will be needed."
A Broad Vision and Broad Scope: FedEx
As an example of how the CMO of the future will have to wear many hats, consider the job responsibilities of FedEx's EVP and chief marketing and communications officer, Rajesh Subramaniam. In addition to overseeing the company's advertising, brand and reputation building, communications, and digital marketing, he is also in charge of product development and portfolio expansion, customer experience, e-commerce, retail marketing, and corporate strategy.
"In many ways, the future is now at FedEx," Subramaniam says. "As the world evolves, the role of the CMO is going to get broader and much more relevant to driving the strategic direction of the whole enterprise. The CMO is critical in looking at the product portfolio landscape and the geographic landscape, and figuring out where the market is heading, what the customers might need in the future, and innovating to move the whole enterprise there. … You have to be a well-rounded CMO with a broad vision and broad scope."
Subramaniam says that FedEx has adopted a focus on "design thinking" to carry out new initiatives at a global scale, and he stresses that the CMO needs to be "connected at the hip" with the chief information officer, given the importance of an integrated digital strategy. He also works closely with senior leaders to proactively support the company's culture, for example by screening potential acquisitions for cultural fit and ensuring that every new hire is indoctrinated in the "Purple Promise," a pledge to make every FedEx experience outstanding.
"The CMO has to play an important role in driving a thriving culture in the enterprise," Subramaniam says. "Especially in a service business, where we win and lose on a daily basis with millions of points of interaction between FedEx and the customer, culture is paramount."
Developing a Team for a New Era: Mastercard
Three years ago, Mastercard's senior leaders launched an effort to redefine the role of marketing as a competitive advantage to fuel business growth. As a first step, they defined three pillars for what marketing was supposed to do: build and protect the brand, serve as a force-multiplier for the business, and create platforms that will ensure sustained competitive advantage.
"We then organized ourselves to deliver against those three pillars," says the global payments and technology company's Rajamannar.
As a key part of the transformation, Mastercard developed a robust training platform with more than 20 interactive digital marketing modules, as well as Finance 101, Payments 101, and other foundational courses to ensure marketers had a well-rounded understanding of the business.
"We sent people to Yale to study behavioral economics, and we started getting familiar with the industry as well as with academic institutions to retrain our existing people," Rajamannar says. "We also put in place job rotations so people go through multiple areas to become familiar with the other aspects of running a company, not just marketing."
Meanwhile, Mastercard has invested in strategic business acquisitions, buying an artificial intelligence firm and at least two data and analytics firms and leveraging this expertise to accelerate its digital marketing capabilities. "Overnight this changed the level of competence of the company," Rajamannar says.
He stresses that the CMO of the future should have a business-oriented mindset and lead their marketing team, if not already doing so, in reimagining their raison d'être, as Mastercard did with its three pillars. They should also apply their skills in branding and communications to make a strong case to the C-suite.
"Justify your existence in a compelling fashion," he says. "Embed the department as a powerhouse of value creation. They should be seen as a business driver, and they need to connect the dots."
Driving the Customer Experience: Bank of America
Like many industries, retail and commercial banking has been transformed by the digital revolution, particularly as customers face fewer barriers to keep them from moving from bank to bank. As a result, brands like Bank of America have adjusted their operations to focus less on one-way advertising and more on delivering a strong customer experience.
"Everything we do at Bank of America starts with the customer," says Meredith Verdone, CMO at Bank of America. "Customer expectations are changing. We don't compare ourselves to other banks, we compare ourselves to the last experience they had. It's no longer a notion of creating messaging and then driving them to a channel. Everything is very interconnected."
While data analytics is essential for understanding the consumer, Verdone notes that Bank of America turns to a variety of sources for insights. For example, the company convened a panel of behavioral psychologists to help untangle why people feel comfortable using their phones for some transactions but not for others. This focus on knowing the customer has helped the company find ways to engage on social media in unobtrusive ways.
When BofA launched Zelle, a peer-to-peer payment system, it tapped into an insight that, for many people, owing friends money is an emotionally charged issue. "We created a special day, 'Pay Back a Friend Day,' to create a conversation," Verdone says. "It was a dynamic, socially driven campaign, based on a human truth, and integrated across all channels. We were operating in a nimble way, a flat way, letting the data give us insights and then responding with creative in real time."
The CMO of the future, in other words, must be able to harness data to shape both strategy and tactical executions, all with an eye toward not just impressions but also business objectives. "In the future, there's going to be more data, and more ability to drive that deep understanding of coordinated messages and experiences with our customers," Verdone says. "You can create a lot of things, develop a lot of technology, but if you don't have a brand that stands for something and you're not solving a customer problem, you're not going to be relevant."
Products and Partners: Kohl's
As e-commerce has shaken many traditional brick-and-mortar businesses to their foundations, Kohl's, a Wisconsin-based omnichannel retailer with 1,158 locations across the country, has weathered the storm by learning to adapt and evolve. The company has moved beyond thinking of e-commerce as a separate channel, for example, and has set up a robust, integrated, customer-centric marketing platform.
"We now are measured in terms of omnichannel traffic and omnichannel brand," says Greg Revelle, CMO at Kohl's. "It's all about total traffic and total sales."
Revelle recently helped orchestrate a new kind of partnership that suggests where the marketing role is headed in the future. Seeking to grow its business with millennial audiences, Kohl's worked with PopSugar, a global media and technology company, which not only offers Kohl's a content platform and social media influencers but also has troves of data and consumer insights about what millennials are likely to buy. Armed with these insights, Revelle brought together the merchants, product development people, and store teams for Kohl's to develop a new product line sold through special PopSugar-branded sections in select stores and online.
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"We designed an entirely new line of apparel and designed a new store footprint and put a whole marketing plan around it," Revelle says. "We've built a soup-to-nuts business plan and a product portfolio with a partner that happens to have originated in the marketing side of the business. We're not just bringing in a partner for an advertising objective; we're actually helping change the customer value proposition and the things we sell to our customers."
In the future, this "connector" function will become more important as CMOs work on many fronts to manage the delivery of both messaging and customer experience. "The CMO is looked to to say, 'What is it that the customer needs, and how does the company need to reform itself in order to shape those customer needs?'" Revelle says. "Advertising is a very small piece of that. Much more of it is the products the company sells, the models those companies use to get products to market, and the experiences. Marketers are more involved in those conversations than ever."
A Pivot from CSR to Brand Advocacy: Aflac
In 2017, insurance brand Aflac made a strategic decision to integrate marketing and communications under a single leadership position. Such integrations will be essential for brands in the future, says Catherine Hernandez-Blades, Aflac's SVP and chief brand and communications officer, because brand reputation must be carefully managed at a time when information, including fake news, can spread rapidly.
Catherine Hernandez-Blades courtesy of Aflac
"We're all going to have to deal with the impact of fake content and fake news," she says. "If you don't combine the communications and marketing functions, then you'd better be sure that the leaders of both functions are very plugged in to what the other is trying to do. Monitoring is critical, early alerts are critical, and taking online conversations offline as quickly as possible is also very critical. You need to staff up for those skill sets."
Hernandez-Blades points to a recent incident when Aflac found itself in a firestorm for advertising on a particular TV show. "My inbox was flooded with emails," she says, adding that the brand hadn't advertised on the show for some time leading up to the incident. "But I had to spend a lot of my time dealing with that issue."
At the same time, CMOs should be proactive in helping brands shape their own narrative, Hernandez-Blades says, by pivoting "from corporate social responsibility to corporate advocacy," and aligning themselves around causes or issues that are authentic to their brands.
Aflac, for example, has been ramping up its long-standing support for pediatric cancer research and treatment through advocacy while also finding ways to use its efforts to build positive brand awareness. Earlier this year, the company launched "My Special Aflac Duck," a social robot designed to provide comfort to children with cancer. The duck (which is not even available for sale) won multiple awards at CES in Las Vegas, including Best in Show. "We had 1,200 articles, 2.6 billion impressions, and 400 interviews in three days," Hernandez-Blades says. "It's something people are gravitating to."
Doing Well by Doing Good: Deluxe
While big data is only going to get bigger in the coming years, companies should not get so obsessed with analytics that they lose sight of the big picture, says Amanda Brinkman, chief brand and communications officer at Deluxe, which provides marketing solutions and other services to 4.5 million small businesses and financial technology solutions to about 5,000 financial institutions.
"It's most important for the CMO to carry the torch for finding brand purpose and taking brand action," Brinkman says. "Those things can be informed by data and analytics, but it's the insights you gain from that data, and how that translates into real action, that truly matter."
Having a strong brand purpose is essential in part because it can provide a framework for content that people want to consume. When Deluxe celebrated its 100-year anniversary in 2015, it did not shine the spotlight on the company, but rather launched a program to showcase the importance of small businesses across the U.S. The program evolved into "Small Business Revolution — Main Street," a show streamed on Hulu and SmallBusinessRevolution.org, in which Deluxe awards a small town (and its small businesses) with a $500,000 revitalization each show season.
"It embodies our brand purpose: helping small business owners pursue their passions while taking a real, meaningful brand action," Brinkman says. "And rather than focusing on more traditional paid advertising, we redirected the bulk of our (already modest) ad spend toward creating authentic content that we knew people would actually want to watch. And it has worked: The program has now generated more than 4 billion earned media and social media impressions."
Just as the CMO role of the future will combine art and science, it is important that CMOs not become so obsessed with cranking up revenues that they lose track of their core missions. "In this data-driven era, it's all the more paramount that CMOs proactively shape their roles in a way that allows them to focus on much more than a set of statistics," Brinkman says. "I believe that all companies can 'do well by doing good,' making a real impact on their communities, while bolstering their bottom lines."
Consistency and Accountability: Qualcomm
Wireless technology maker Qualcomm faces a continual challenge to position itself as a leader in the fiercely competitive mobile technology industry. Since assuming the role of SVP and CMO in 2017, Penny Baldwin has led an effort to craft a "corporate narrative" to help Qualcomm's global employees, particularly external-facing leaders and marketing and communications teams, better articulate the role the company plays in enabling the digital world.
"There was a profound lack of understanding of who Qualcomm is and what we do," Baldwin says. "It's a socialization process. We are trying to make sure that narrative is constantly expressed, supported, and reflected in every major platform. … We have tracking mechanisms in place that look for message pull-through against the narrative."
She says using tools like the narrative to reinforce brand messaging "is something you will always need to do, and always needed to have done, if you are CMO at any organization."
Baldwin has also worked to integrate Qualcomm's data and analytics functions. She set up a CMO dashboard to "roll up metrics that were previously housed in discrete corners of the company." The dashboard aggregates data from across channels and disciplines, and shows how marketing is contributing to the company's business objectives. She also created a new VP position responsible not only for "insights, data, and analytics" but also for developing worldwide marketing plans and narratives.
"Data analytics is a behavioral muscle, one that has to get set up initially and continuously reinforced throughout the organization," Baldwin says. "The exercise of consolidating the data, reporting it, and sharing it out, including to the executive leadership team, helps to reinforce the behavior of, 'I've got to pay attention to this and drive results.' It automatically enhances accountability across the board."
Advice for Next-Gen CMOs
The eight CMOs interviewed for this article offered their advice to aspiring marketers who want to be successful senior marketing leaders in the future.
- Marc Pritchard, Procter & Gamble: "Think about the skills you need as broad commercial skills, as opposed to marketing communications. And you've got to be well-grounded in understanding data analytics and technology."
- Raj Subramaniam, FedEx: "Be ready to rotate and try your hand at different aspects of the business, including operations. I spent a few years as president of FedEx Canada; that was a general management role. It was a fantastic experience that gave me a full understanding of all aspects of the business."
- Catherine Hernandez-Blades, Aflac: "No job is too small. You're not going to graduate and end up in the C-suite any time soon. You're going to have to get all the practical experience you can. I'd encourage having mentors and sponsors, and knowing the difference."
- Meredith Verdone, Bank of America: "You have to have a depth of quantitative understanding to be effective, but you also need to have critical thinking and a healthy dose of emotional intelligence. And you need to be able to tell a cogent, understandable story in plain English that you can communicate across a broad set of stakeholders."
- Penny Baldwin, Qualcomm: "Study the craft. Marketing is subject to much subjectivity and so many opinions and points of view that you really need to be expert in the field and be able to credibly cite experiences you had, knowledge you've gained, outcomes you've driven, and results that have been produced. These give you the merit and right to articulate a credible point of view on what should be done, and how it should be done."
- Raja Rajamannar, Mastercard: "Get general management experience, which is what will give you the credibility and gravitas to talk one-to-one with the CEO or CFO. Seek experiences and rotations in other functions to round yourself off. These are the folks who are going to lead the marketing function tomorrow, and they should be well equipped for that."
- Greg Revelle, Kohl's: "Spend time dabbling in as many different areas of marketing as you possibly can so by the time you have opportunities to take on larger roles, you're fully prepared with background in the various disciplines of the function. That includes analytics and data, creating campaigns that are driven by customer insights, and as a bonus, the ability to lead fairly complex projects, ideally across functions."
- Amanda Brinkman, Deluxe: "Do interesting things now. CMO roles tend to change quite often. But what never changes is that the people who thrive in marketing are the people who are the most curious and passionate. … Ultimately, building a life that you're passionate about will make you feel more fulfilled while also making you a more savvy and well-rounded marketer."