Robert Sawatzky
Nov 16, 2016

Why marketers need some marketing

Embattled. Underfunded. Lacking control. Viewed as ineffective. Many Asian CMOs are kept out of the corporate inner circle. Time for them to lead, says author Thomas Barta.

Thomas Barta
Thomas Barta

It’s an unwelcome paradox in the world of marcomms. CMOs are expected to be rock stars at crafting the most compelling cases for brand loyalty and support. Yet too often, they fail to secure the confidence of top decision makers and allow their own reputations to diminish internally.

“They’re not doing very well,” says Thomas Barta, who flags the problem in The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader, the book he co-authored along with London Business School’s Patrick Barwise.

“They get fired more often than anybody else. Their careers are dismal. Even their bosses say as far as career success, marketers are doing worse compared to everybody else—HR, finance…they’re in last place.”

Only two-thirds of Asian CMOs see their role as very influential and supported by top management, the authors say. Fewer than half of Asian CMOs see their careers developing well. A mere 38 percent say they have the people and funds needed to win the market.

The sad statistics emerge from an exhaustive study. Barta and Barwise poured through self-assessments from 1,232 senior marketers worldwide, scanned the responses of 67,000 superiors and co-workers and interviewed more than 100 executives for their research. About 20 percent of their sample derives from Asia.

Yet despite the dismal outlook, the vast majority of Asian CMOs (78 percent) believe they’re doing important work, creating real business impact in building product value, securing customers and bringing in revenue. So what gives?

A former Kimberly-Clark marketer, Barta can sympathise. But as a past McKinsey partner, the consultant in him wants to move on to diagnosing the problem and finding solutions.

Three gaps

CMOs have some key disadvantages to influencing c-suite decision makers, Barta says.

First, their work by nature is largely focused on the future. Future profit, future revenue, future customer behaviour, with less concrete ROI to draw from.

“Now if someone comes to you and says ‘I know the future’… at a company meeting sitting next to a finance person, they look a bit shady,” says Barta. “So there’s a trust gap.”

Then there’s a power gap. Driving positive brand recognition and delivering optimal customer satisfaction is a massive job, a team effort by nature. Doing it well may depend on the work of hundreds or thousands of employees across an organisation and beyond it, including product designers, manufacturers, salespeople and those assisting customers. Very few involved will report directly to marketing, Barta notes. So despite very big concerns, few marketers have the power to address their problems directly.

The result, Barta says, is that CMOs can easily appear ineffective. In his survey research, CMOs were the most likely of any executive to be tagged with the description “always seen as not being able to get work done.”

Finally, there’s a c-suite cultural gap. No question, marketers are a different breed, says Barta. They thrive on new experiences, they like to think creatively and their risk tolerance is much higher than other executives, especially CFOs. Holding different values, their corporate vision can deviate, leading to isolation and a lack of confidence.

This cultural barrier is even most pronounced in Asia, where only 56 percent of CMOs say they fit well with their company’s culture and way of working, the lowest of any region. Unsurprisingly, a mere 57 percent say they’re seen as a role model.

“In Asia, you get it in spades,” Barta tells Campaign Asia-Pacific during a visit to Hong Kong. “The challenges are not different, just larger. Marketers in Asia are doing exceptionally important work, but they’re not getting rewarded. It has a lot to do with the fact that they are different, the function isn’t that established. Marketers have to play a larger role in marketing marketing internally.”

Winning c-suite respect

Marketers need top level support to do their jobs effectively. So how do they close the gaps and get the backing they need? Here are Barta’s suggestions:

  • You’re different, get over it. Personality rarely determines CMO success. Realizer you don’t need to be just like your boss, you just need to know how to be understood by her or him.
  • Align your goals with the company. If there’s a financial crisis underway, don’t just harp on about brand projects, or you’ll continue to be associated with costs. Associate your goals with revenue. Then you’re speaking the same language.
  • Enlist support. Don’t make your case alone. Bring finance on board to help. Organisations with CMOs earn 15 percent more than those who do not, says Barta. Just back up your brand investments with data on returns.
  • Defend the art. Not everything boils down to data or dollars and sense. Be clear on the intangibles and explain why they’re important.
  • Use storytelling skills. CMOs know how to build brand narratives and engage customers. They need to do the same with employees to execute internally. Walk the halls, inspire and engage team members in a vision to get the job done.
  • Be a leader. How a CMO mobilises his or her boss and peers is the biggest differentiator between success and failure, says Barta.

Two Asian success stories in the book help illustrate this. The first involves the tenacity of LG’s Simon Kang. With little marketing experience, he methodically won over agencies and buyers behind his concept of “intelligent ideas, delightful discoveries” to make LG a household name in the US appliance business.

In another example, Asian beverage executive Meng Whee (not her real name) was rewarded for going against the grain. She convinced her boss to cut his deep personal agency ties to bring in a better qualified but untested team from overseas. The resulting campaigns were given much credit for a 5 percent jump in market share.

The message here is that marketers can still be daring if they’ve already earned some trust. “I think they would be given more license to take risks if they would connect better on some of the basics,” Barta says.

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