The rise of CMOs: How marketers are making their mark

Today’s talented marketers are strategic, creative and collaborative, with a deep understanding of consumer behaviour. Are they the leaders of the future?

Knowing your customer is a competitive advantage – and who knows more than a data-driven marketer? Corporate giants such as IBM, Tesco and L’Oréal have CEOs from marketing backgrounds and, as long as customer-centricity continues to drive profitability, it’s likely that others will follow their lead.

“It doesn’t surprise me that we’re seeing more and more marketers head up the world’s leading companies,” says Catriona Pollard, a former marketer who is now CEO of CP Communications. “They can bring a deep understanding of what customers or clients want and need and, as a result, have a significant impact on business growth. Good marketers are also great communicators and, in the age of social media, this is a very valuable skill.”

New research from recruiters Heidrick & Struggles found that, in the UK, almost one in five FTSE 100 CEOs are former marketers, second only to those with a background in finance. In the consumer and global technology sectors it’s closer to one in three.

Though slightly lower in the US, the figures reflect an upward trend. And, while there are no statistics available for Australia, there are notable examples such as RedBalloon’s Nick Baker and David Scribner of Sensis True Local. Many of the entrepreneurs who lead brand-driven organisations such as Grill’d and Boost Juice also have a commercial background.

Paul Hallam, Founder and Managing Director of specialist executive recruitment consultancy Six Degrees Executive, expects the trend to continue. “Today’s marketers offer a combination of creativity and strong analytical skills,” he says. “As companies continue to focus closely on their customers and look to innovation for differentiation, this makes them very good candidates for the CEO role.”

Financial acumen

Joel Norton’s career has taken him from marketing consultant through CMO of Boost Marketing Solutions to CEO of Kalido, a major business within the ASX-listed IVE Group. He points out that, while marketing is first and foremost about understanding the customer, it’s also about finance.

“The best marketers understand financial metrics around customer acquisition and customer value – what it costs to acquire a customer through different channels and how this translates into revenue and profit,” he says.

But are marketers equipped to oversee the company’s overall financial performance?“One of the biggest obstacles to promotion is the myth that you’re ‘just a marketer’ with little or no financial acumen,” says Pollard. “Of course you must have the appropriate skills, and that might involve extra training or further education, but you don’t necessarily need a degree in finance, or an MBA to lead a company.”

Norton adds that no CEO has expertise in every area of the business. “There are subject matter specialists for that,” he says. “A good CEO knows enough to ask the right questions and challenge the team.”

The make-up of the team is also critical to supporting the C-suite position. “Good leaders know their own strengths and weaknesses and surround themselves with people who can fill the gaps,” says Hallam. “For example, it’s very common for a CEO with a marketing background to work closely with a strong CFO.”

Fairer representation

There’s a chance the rise of the marketing CEO will keep more women in the leadership pipeline. At the last count, only 5% of CEOs in the ASX200 were female – corporate adviser Conrad Liveris has made the point that you’re more likely to lead an Australian ASX200 company if your name is Peter, David or John than if you’re a woman.

Things aren’t much better in the UK or the US, where the figure is close to 6% for both the FTSE 100 and Fortune 500. However, 12 of the 32 women who made it to Fortune’s list have a commercial background, so might female marketers lead the way to fairer representation?

“Like human resources, marketing is a discipline where there is significant gender diversity,” says Hallam. “If the trend for marketers to be elevated to CEO continues then, logically, I think we can expect to see more females in the role.”

Aiming for the top

Hallam recommends that marketers with their sights on corporate leadership adopt a long-term strategy. “Rather than waiting for their career to happen, the most successful people look five to 10 years out, decide where they want to be and work with their organisation to make sure they’re getting the experience and qualifications they need,” he says.

“These days, many boards look for breadth of experience in their CEO and, when your background is marketing, it’s particularly important to have more than one string to your bow.”

He also stresses the importance of developing leadership capability. “Our recent ‘Future of Leadership in Australia’ research found that emotional intelligence, authenticity, collaboration and communication skills are becoming much more important than technical aptitude at a CEO level,” says Hallam. “This is good news for marketers as they tend to have natural strengths in these areas along with more formal skills.”

As companies become increasingly customer-centric, marketers’ deep understanding of consumer behaviour will continue to drive profits and growth.


Domini Stuart is a Sydney-based freelance journalist, author and speaker. She writes on a range of topics including business and health for a number of national publications.

Source: CEO Magazine