Rise of the Agile CMO

This article is based on Andrea's forthcoming book, Mastering Marketing Agility (Berrett-Koehler, June 2020). 

When a CMO is hired, somewhere an hourglass flips over.

Grains of sand begin plummeting from the upper half, piling up inexorably in the bottom until time runs out and the CMO is politely asked to leave.

It’s a grim picture, and it turns out it’s not even a very big hourglass compared to those measuring out the lifespan of other executives. Recent data from executive placement firm Korn/Ferry revealed an average tenure of 3 years for CMOs, 2.3 years less than the C-suite in aggregate. 

While brutal, this high rate of churn isn’t completely surprising to those of us who have spent much time (more than 3 years, if the data is accurate) in the marketing profession.

CMOs come and go with alarming frequency. Some enterprises don't even have one anymore.

But what's the antidote to this executive merry go round?

Turns out being an Agile CMO can prevent this constant churn, while also making life less insane for everyone around the CMO too.

A humorous cartoon showcasing the frequent change of CMOs in business organizations.

The Downfall of the Non-Agile CMO

Here’s how the CMO life cycle often goes: a CMO gets hired, then spends 60-90 days listening and learning (and stressing a whole department’s worth of people out by meeting with them one on one).

Then they unveil their new Marketing Vision (complete with all caps, a huge PowerPoint presentation, and even more meetings).

Chances are there’s a brand update and/or a website refresh early on the new roadmap. If the CMO's super ambitious, there might even be both.

Scope Creep and Never-ending Projects

While there’s technically nothing wrong with either of those tactics (if the timing and objectives are right), they represent some of the most amorphous projects out there. Digging into such huge efforts right away, and making practically all other efforts dependent on the, is a very non-Agile CMO thing to do. 

Once the work is underway, it’s often difficult to pin down thorny questions like:

  • When is the work done? Who decides? What if there's disagreement? 
  • How do we measure the impact? How long before it will even be felt? 
  • Whose approval is necessary and at which stage? Are there limits on revisions, or do we just keep going until everyone agrees? 
  • What if sales/the CEO/our top customer hates it? 

Not only are the parameters of these projects hard to articulate, they’re also common prey for scope creep. You know scope creep -- that's where you plan to do a few things, but everybody throws in their pet items until the original plan balloons and takes months longer than anticipated.

Everyone has an opinion about branding and websites (because somehow browsing websites makes everyone an expert on their design and function), which can mean that rounds of review and revision alone can drag on for months.

Everybody's a Marketer

Both branding and website design are also highly subjective.

It’s impossible to decide if a particular shade of blue makes us feel hopeful or optimistic, yet we’ll spend hours debating such un-provable questions during these types of projects.

Combine these two factors with a less than ideal work management process, and it's not surprising early CMO efforts take a really long time to get done. Then, of course, they take even longer to start  showing quantifiable results.

Add in the need to prove an actual return on investment (ROI), and it’s no wonder the CMO collapse imperils executives everywhere.  

Enter Growth Hacking

With this clock ticking loudly in their ears, non-Agile CMOs start getting nervous around the two-year mark.

They’re running low on sand in their hourglass, and they can feel it.

Then the poor decision making begins in earnest.

Their early efforts to shore up brand identity and push for long-term vision aren’t delivering, at least not in a way they can prove to the CFO, so they start to optimize for the near term.

This newly myopic perspective is often compounded by the board and CEO, who have most likely been looking at quarterly results all along but have been giving the CMO “some wiggle room” during their early months. 

The five stages of digital transformation: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance

As the flailing continues, tactical quick wins get prioritized over long term strategy. In some cases, this flurry of activity will buy the CMO time, especially if they can growth hack their way to some significant flashy outcomes.

But eventually the tactic well runs dry, the numbers flatten out, and, alas, the CMO moves along. 

If you’re a CMO or Vice President who’d like to write a different ending for yourself, you'll be glad to know that marketing agility provides you with the roadmap you need to avoid this fate. When you get hired and the hourglass gets flipped, it could be counting down to  your first big win, instead of your eventual demise. 

Agile CMO Improvement: Speed of Release

According to McKinsey, marketing campaigns take an average of 8 months to be released. When we combine that pace with the 3 year CMO tenure (plus the obligatory 3 month listening period), that's not friendly math.

Faster speed to market is one of the primary  benefits of agility, with successful Agile teams reporting triple-digit improvements in their ability to get stuff out the door.

In marketing specifically 53% of Agile teams say they can change gears quickly based on feedback, 40% say they find roadblocks sooner, and 36% say they enjoy faster release schedules.

A bar chart showcasing the biggest benefits that marketing teams experience when they adopt Agile

So instead of releasing one or two huge, risky campaigns per year, an Agile CMO can release, learn, and iterate far more often.

No need to pin all your hopes on the meager handful of campaigns that you can get done in your three-year stint.

Other Ways Agility Helps CMOs

You'll notice in the chart above that while speed is a recurring theme, it's not the only benefit that marketing agility confers.

Agile marketing teams also enjoy happier people, less waste, and a great focus on two major marketing differentiators: customer focus and quality.

  1. Improves morale and decreases churn: Members of an Agile marketing organization feel more autonomy over their work. They enjoy a sense of purpose by aligning with larger goals. And they have the right to say "no" to interruptions and busy work that don't align to those goals. All of this (and much, much more) makes Agile marketers the happiest of all marketers. They're less likely to leave, and more likely to be fully engaged at work.
  2. Reduces waste system-wide: Because of its focus on visibility and transparency, Agile marketing groups see ways to reuse their colleagues' work. There's collaboration and joint efforts. Content doesn't just get put in a DAM and never accessed again. All of this serves to cut down on the waste that otherwise plagues marketing systems.
  3. Improves customer focus and quality: The two unsung heroes of agility and customer focus and quality, both of which are crucial (but often overlooked) outcomes of a successful switch to Agile marketing. When we  organize teams around the customer rather than function, and when we free marketers from the hamster wheel of never-ending order taking, we start to produce marketing that's good enough to get noticed. It's good enough to make a difference to our audience. And that's where the magic really happens.

Agile CMOs Help Us All

The alternative ending, the one with magical, customer-centric marketing and an Agile CMO who sticks around long enough to become a real brand advocate, is valuable not just for the marketing executives themselves. It also helps the marketers who suffer from whiplash trying to jump from one boss to another.

And it reverses the impact that the revolving door of CMOs has on the companies these executives are supposed to support.

Deloitte reports that, “One portfolio analysis shows that stocks of companies where a CMO is part of the top management team—often signaling a corporate-wide, customer-centric focus—netted shareholders significantly higher long-term returns than portfolios lacking CMO emphasis. These results were magnified for organizations that had a relatively high R&D and advertising spend.”

Ultimately, non-Agile CMO churn is bad for everyone.

It’s bad for the CMOs themselves,  bad for the teams they lead, bad for the organizations they work for, and bad for the audiences who are exposed to the haphazard marketing their teams generate.

Fortunately, by shortening launch times and emphasizing the continuous delivery of customer value, we can not only halt this vicious cycle, but turn marketing into a value-adding, customer-centric hub of excellence helmed by a trusted executive who represents the customer’s voice. 

Become the Next Agile CMO

I've been striving to help my marketing colleagues make this happen for years, and I’ve distilled a collection of best practices into my latest book, Mastering Marketing Agility. It's designed to revamp and realign operations across the marketing function, meaning that CMOs can become Agile so they can deliver — and prove — their value early and often.

And by “early” I mean within six months, not within three years.

The practices the book outlines will help you make every single piece of marketing work that flows through your organization work better, be higher quality, and make a bigger impact. No need to wait for the traditional “big bang” approach to get done and start to work; by creating minimum viable campaigns with crossfunctional teams and iterating based on incoming data, you’ll start to see, feel, and prove your worth much faster. 

Embrace the journey toward being a truly Agile CMO, and make your next gig the one that makes a difference.

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