Nishtha Asthana
May 23, 2024

The C-suite tangle: Why CMOs need to speak a new language to win over critics

CAMPAIGN 360: Four CMOs explore the evolving dynamics, essential skills, and how CMOs need to speak more CFO and CEO to be the executive pulse of the organisation.

The C-suite tangle: Why CMOs need to speak a new language to win over critics

For years, headlines around chief marketing officers have focussed on how short their tenures are. The existential crisis hasn’t changed much. In today’s challenging economic landscape, achieving growth is an uphill battle. According to a McKinsey report, a staggering one in four companies experiences no growth. Meanwhile, only 10% of S&P 500 firms consistently outpace GDP growth over three decades. Growth isn’t serendipitous; it demands deliberate choices.

Marketing, as a core growth strategy, requires more than a directive from the CEO to the CMO. It involves dynamic partnerships, role clarity, modern methodologies, and practical impact measurement. But what happens inside the C-suites of high-growth versus low-growth companies? How do marketers navigate the blurred lines between marketing, communications, digital, and finance? Most crucially, how do they win over the CFO?

These questions took centre stage during a panel discussion at Campaign Asia’s flagship event, Campaign360. Let’s look into the valuable insights. 

Ross Gearing, head of marketing at Maersk, emphasised the pivotal role of marketers in board discussions. Often the champion of the customer's voice, their holistic view contrasts with the transactional perspectives held by operations, sales and CX teams.

“I take it upon myself to bring this view to the board discussions and always champion the customer and the customer's voice,” shared Gearing.

Erica Kerner, MD, global head of Sponsorship and Events at Standard Chartered, acknowledged the variability of CMO roles across companies. A clear definition of the role isn’t straightforward —it varies widely.

“What is the role of the CMO? I can't answer that question definitively because it varies widely across different companies. In some, the CMO oversees digital functions and revenue, while others do not. There's also a trend of CMOs being excluded from the C-suite altogether”, she said.
Regardless, Kerner agreed with Gearing on the importance of the CMO as the customer advocate within the organisation. The CEO-CMO relationship drives growth and innovation.

Bassam Abdel-Rahman, Zenyum's CMO, focused on the convergence of marketing and finance, emphasising the need for heightened collaboration between the CFO and CMO.

“When I started as a CMO, I was focused on brand relevance and marketing. My role is more akin to finance, with 80% of my job involving financial decisions. I strive to maximise spending and see where it delivers returns.”

He humorously likened himself to a hedge fund manager, allocating funds strategically across countries and channels.

Meanwhile, David Chung, general manager of marketing and customer relationship at Mazda, underscored the emotional aspect of marketing and viewed the vertical as an investment, not an expense, for significant returns in sales.

“Consumers’ purchases are driven by emotions. Therefore, the CMO's job is to evoke this emotional connection for the brand continually. It's not just about advertising; it's about ensuring all touchpoints resonate emotionally”, he said.

CMO expectations redefined

Traditionally, CMOs have overseen what’s known as the 4Ps for customer interactions: product, price, place, and promotion. But the winds of change have swept through the corporate corridors. New roles adjacent to marketing, such as chief digital officers, chief customer officers, and chief growth officers, have emerged.

The multifaceted marketing CMO, according to Erica Kerner (Standard Chartered), is a torchbearer of modern marketing, one that is virtuosos across diverse realms—from PR wizardry to digital dexterity.

The role and expectations from the role transcend from mere functional expertise. CMOs are no longer merely “colouring in the department.” Instead, they’re reliable partners to the C-suite, especially in sales and finance. To safeguard and elevate the CMO role, a trifecta of attributes is essential: business savvy, financial acumen, and unwavering collaboration across the organisation.

To add to this, Rahman (Zenyum) reveals a seismic shift. In his experience, sustainable growth now trumps reckless expansion, and in the current climate, investors are demanding financial acuity—an orchestra led by data scientists. However, the big concern then is that this focus on data might overlook the intangible aspects of marketing. Rahman emphasises the importance for CMOs to maintain the balance between data-driven decisions and a creative voice in marketing.

Communication focus

The CFO-CMO partnership holds potential and promise for organisations. To harness this potential, both parties must commit to open, transparent, and regular communication. Sharing insights, discussing challenges, and collaborating on solutions are essential steps highlighted by the panellists.

Mazda's Chung, the CFO, serves as the first audience to convince—essentially the first customer. It’s crucial for them to believe in the marketing plan’s solidity and its ability to create business opportunities.

He added that both the CMO and the CFO need to be on the same page when it comes to viewing marketing as a revenue driver rather than a cost centre.

Gearing explained the importance of this CFO-CMO dynamics in simple terms.

“It's essential to remember that getting the marketing budget approved requires convincing our internal stakeholders—the CFO, who reports to the CEO, who in turn reports to the board, which answers to shareholders. If we can't persuade them to allocate funds, how can we expect to sell to our target audience?”

Rahman believes that each C-suite executive needs to focus on their core skill. When presenting to the board, the marketer needs to switch to a language that they understand—keeping it simple and jargon-free. Explaining what's happening and providing early indicators that the plan is working is the key, he said.

“While short-term returns are crucial, long-term investments like sponsorships might take years to show results. Communicate the plan, show early results, and consistently deliver on promises,” added Rahman.

Strategies at play

The panellists emphasised the importance of aligning marketing strategies with long-term value creation, particularly in discussions with the CFO.

Rahman shared the "pay-to-play trap,” focusing on strategies that attract and retain customers and moving away from short-term tactics.

Metrics tying marketing activities to sales were also deemed crucial by the CMOs. They noted that the focus should be on metrics that directly impact sales when presenting to the board, demonstrating enough return on investment to justify continued investment and drive further growth.

Giving some practical tips, Chung stressed the significance of a comprehensive plan outlining both short-term tactics and long-term objectives, ensuring alignment of efforts and resources and Gearing proposed smaller, targeted events over large launch events to save costs and gather valuable feedback.

Key takeaway

Concluding the discussion and elaborating on one key takeaway for marketers, the four CMOs shared the following.

Kener: “To effectively communicate, tailoring your message to resonate with your audience is key. This approach can lead to more meaningful interactions and better results.”

Chung: “Speak to your audience as if they're friends because you're all in this together. Don't expect them to champion your cause if they don't fully grasp it.”

Rahman: “While data is valuable, it can't predict the future. I've learned to push back on relying solely on data and advocate for experimentation. It's important to take calculated risks and remember that there's more to life than just numbers.”

Gearing:” There needs to be an agreement on growth focus, customer obsession, and the importance of avoiding marketing vanity metrics in the boardroom. Bring the CFO into discussions with the marketing team where the executive can teach the team how the company makes money.”

Campaign Asia

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