The CMO’s move to CEO: Pipedream, or possibility?

As we enter a new decade is it time that the Chief Marketing Officer is considered for Chief Executive Officer roles?

Shalina Poulter, Associate Partner within the Sales & Marketing specialism of the Board Practice at Eton Bridge Partners, speaks to Jonathan Spence, Interim Marketing Transformation Director, to share and debate their views on this very topic:

JS: The one thing organisations cannot get away from is the fact that they live or die by customer service, and with the CMO’s role being all about this, surely, it’s time to take the evolution of the CMO to CEO role seriously.

SP: I totally agree. Historically, in my view, the status of the CMO role has been downgraded in importance in comparison that of the COO. This has been largely driven by the continual drive for profitability (faced by all businesses), which is more tangibly measurable under the traditional remit of the COO. What we’re now seeing is a resurgence; with customer insight becoming clearly measurable through the availability of data driven by the development of digital marketing. This enables clear, and measurable analytics of customer responses, preferences and behaviours. The subsequent focus enables marketers to shape and drive the way the business needs to develop with a customer centric mindset.

JS: One danger is that I think we’re at a crunch-point in the way CMOs are being looked at. For me, their biggest issue has been the rise of digital – in that marketing has almost narrowed itself into becoming a specialism, when really the CMOs’ skills need to be perceived to be much broader, to allow them to influence the wider business.

One other issue is whether CMOs should/ could really jump into a CEO role in just a single leap? Maybe there’s an argument for saying they ought to take COO positions first – to at least give them the wider business grounding they might need or that others might perceive them to need.

SP: One thing’s for certain though; there’s definitely an opportunity for executive search firms to consider CMOs in the sourcing of a CEO role. The change won’t happen by itself, and it’s incumbent on search firms like Eton Bridge Partners to have the necessary conversations with clients about the broader skills that a CMO’s possess which can support this consideration.

Marketing is now driving the value of companies, and there’s a need for CEOs to be more customer data-driven: this is the path that modern Marketers now experience through their career. Marketers are absolutely able to identify how, and where to drive growth; availability of customer segmentation and analysis through data underpins critical business decisions that result in profitable growth.

JS: I think you’re right. There’s no such thing as a ‘growth industry’ anymore, only ‘growth opportunities’ – and it’s knowing where these come from (and how to respond to them), that future CEOs will come to find success. Firms can’t hope to sell their way to success; they need to know what their customers are thinking more accurately.

SP: Marketers are fiscally minded and focused on financial metrics. With growth more likely to come from customers gravitating towards a brand, rather than spending more overall, the need to understand how and where marketing investment is spent to ensure they are attracting the most profitable customers and optimising sales opportunities.

JS: Don’t forget that lots of traditional CEOs are in the spotlight now too – they’re very well paid, but the downside of this is that the impact of failure on them is very real, which consequently makes them more risk averse.

In the current climate, we need more CEOs that are metrics driven, and who can take a long-term view around a specific strategy.

Sure, we can’t ignore the fact that CFOs are seen to be more senior than a CMO in many organisations, therefore the perception of the CMO does need to change – is this an impossible task? I think not.

We’re currently in good times where there seems to be a rise of support for the notion that the best people to lead businesses are those who have the right skills and attitude.

SP: Yes, and what’s just as prescient now, is the parallel debate around what organisations want their C-suite to look like; and which attributes they should be recruiting to produce the results they desire. The time is right for CMOs to be in this conversation.

JS: I think there’s an awareness of this and organisations have known it for some time, but they just haven’t done anything about it yet.

SP: And they should! It feels obvious, that organisations have the opportunity to change their thinking. Moving the positioning to say, if we put the customer first, and we have a deep understanding of what it is that they expect from us; then we can deliver against it, and we’ll have positioned ourselves well for success.’

Shalina Poulter

Associate Partner
Board Practice - Commercial, Sales & Marketing


Specialising in Executive Search within senior leadership and Board level positions, Shalina’s extensive leadership, commercial and people management experience enable her to guide and support both senior clients and candidates to ensure the best possible outcomes.