Thomas Barta
Apr 25, 2017

Pirates or navy officers? Asian CMOs must get in sync

There is a worrying disconnect between Asian marketers’ achievement and sense of success—but there is a simple solution.

Thomas Barta
Thomas Barta

For years Asian CEOs have wanted their companies to be more customer oriented. In today’s digital world, where consumers can quickly compare products and services, true customer focus has even become a matter of company survival. Marketers are lynchpins for this customer focus. In principle, therefore, the marketing spot in the organisation should be exalted. Yet in Asia, marketers still struggle to influence the big company decisions. 

Despite endlessly saying they want to be more customer focused, many Asian company leaders still don’t have marketers on their top teams. Few chief marketing officers make it to CEO, and marketers’ reputation in the C-suite is mixed. Along with Patrick Barwise, from the London Business School, I recently conducted the largest ever global study on CMO success. We analysed over 68,000 executive assessments, including responses from bosses, peers and subordinates. We found that 78 percent of Asian senior marketers believe they create real business results for their company—but only 49 percent say their career is going well.

Why is life for Asian marketers so tricky? One view is that the digital revolution is prompting CEOs to look for new, tech-savvy top managers. Another is that the ever-growing pressure to show measurable results is taking its toll on some CMOs. It’s also true that, for business growth, many Asian CEOs still rely on product development and sales (a strategy that’s increasingly failing in competitive markets) instead of utilising the power of world-class brand building, pricing, and customer focus.

But there’s another, less palatable, truth: many Asian CEOs don’t realise when their marketing leaders fall out of sync with the rest of the C-suite—like Steve Jobs did at Apple in the 1980s.

Jobs was so focused on his pet project, the Macintosh, that he secured a separate building for his team, complete with a pirate flag reading: “It’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy.” Jobs was great at understanding customers’ needs. But even as the company was bleeding cash, he couldn’t care less about the priorities of his CEO—who ended up firing him.

Here’s another chilling finding from our research: just 56 percent of Asian marketers say they and their company fit well together, and only 55 percent believe their company is clear about marketing’s role. Something needs to change.

Asian company leaders often expect their marketers to spend their time understanding customers and creating promotions that people love. That’s a good thing. But we made a stunning discovery: the CMOs with the greatest business impact and career success did something else well, too. They understood and addressed their companies’ top needs. They were well aligned with the C-suite. They knew how to mobilise their non-marketing colleagues to better serve customers. The most successful CMOs had very good internal marketing leadership skills.

Our final, important message for CEOs is this: marketing leadership skills can be learned. They are simply a matter of training and choice—a good CEO will make this investment for success. 

Thomas Barta is a former McKinsey partner and co-author of The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader.

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