Has The Great Resignation reached the highest echelons of marketing?
It seems as though it may have, based on the number of high-profile CMO resignations, moves and announcements that have cluttered the first month of the year.
Last week alone, marketing chiefs from IBM, Walgreens, Popeyes and TikTok either stepped away or were removed from their positions after relatively short tenures.
This movement isn’t limited to the CMO role, but other marketing adjacent functions as well. Walmart’s chief customer officer Janey Whiteside, for instance, resigned this month after joining in 2018.
While it’s natural to want to draw conclusions from the flurry, it is important to first note the context at each of these companies.
IBM is going through structural changes after downsizing its business, and has a history of running marketing under its communications function. When Roz Brewer joined Walgreens Boots Alliance as CEO in March, she created a new chief customer officer position and hired Tracey Brown to fill it, putting the CMO role on thin ice.
“In those two examples, it's very specific to those companies and related to broader organizational structure change,” Richard Sanderson, who heads up the marketing, sales and communications officer practice at executive search firm Spencer Stuart, tells me.
But there are broader secular changes afoot that are reshaping the marketer role and making it more difficult to achieve long-term success in it.
The pandemic and the general reassessment people are making about their lives and careers has not left marketing untouched. On the one hand, people are burned out and looking for something new. On the other, until recently, the stock market has been at an all-time high, and late-career executives are taking the opportunity to retire early. Sanderson tells me he’s currently leading two executive searches driven by the latter trend.
But underlying the pandemic, and fueled by it, is the ever-increasing complexity of the marketer role. Digital transformation was already putting pressure on marketers long before COVID-19, but the need to adapt has sped into hyperdrive over the past two years. Suddenly, marketers need to not just be creative wizards, but also technical geniuses, customer experience experts and data scientists.
As the CMO role grows more complex, it’s also become less tightly defined. What used to be a focus on creative and brand marketing has expanded into five or six disciplines that are interrelated but require vastly different skill sets and areas of brain power.
“Increasingly, it’s hard to find one person who can do it all,” Sanderson says.
On top of that, access to more data means marketers can now granularly measure their ability to drive revenue, creating more pressure than ever to deliver. That’s leading to a shorter average CMO tenure of just 40 months, the lowest its been since 2009, per Spencer Stuart’s 2021 calculations.
We can see proof of that in the recent spate of CMO exits. IBM’s Carla Piñeyro Sublett is leaving her post just shy of a year on the job; Walgreens’ Patrick McLean resigned after joining in 2019; Popeyes’ Bruno Cardinali stepped down after two years on the job; and Nick Tran is out after joining TikTok in 2020.
Some companies have responded to the pressure of change by eliminating the CMO role altogether, such as Hyatt and Johnson & Johnson. Others are rolling marketing into the communications function (see: IBM), while others still are splitting or replacing the CMO title with ones such as chief customer officer, chief experience officer, chief transformation officer or chief growth officer.
The most successful CMOs have become adept at orchestrating these functions in harmony, rather than having deep subject matter expertise in one particular discipline, Sanderson says.
In that vein, what’s happening to the CMO role is a microcosm of how marketing, communications and customer experience are evolving, expanding and overlapping. It’s a change that won’t slow down and will likely cause more turbulence in the C-suite for some time.
But those unicorns that are up for the challenge have a huge opportunity to control all things related to growth and revenue at their organizations.