Evolution of the CMO: what’s next?

Day-to-day life for CMOs and marketers is changing quite a bit in the age of digital/mobile/big data/etc. On that much, hopefully, we can all agree. But start talking about tomorrow’s marketer and you get a range of responses. Is the CMO taking over the CIO? Are they in a budgetary turf war – or collaborating like never before? When we recently dug into the evolving CMO-CIO relationship, one Twitter user suggested that the roles would eventually merge. Another said that they would remain the same, but needed to be supplemented with a new role – like a marketing technologist or digital officer – to straddle the departments. Scott Brinker has a great blog on the rise of the marketing technologist.

Leaving aside lengthy explanations of how we arrived at this moment in marketing history – or (admittedly fun) speculation about the C-suite in five or ten years – I consulted a pair of forward-thinking marketers to hear more about what CMOs and their marketing teams need to be thinking about right now.

CMO collaboration

“Traditional corporate silos have often left CIOs and CMOs at cross-purposes, even though their roles now intersect at multiple points in the customer journey,” says Lisa Arthur, CMO of Teradata Applications and the author of Forbes‘ “Marketing Revolution” column and the forthcoming book Big Data Marketing: Engage Your Customers to More Effectively Drive Value. When asked for her wishlist for CMOs and CIOs learning to meet halfway, she stressed collaboration as a top priority.

The first step? “Use a project that is the focal point for that bi-directional relationship… Collaboration is a two-way street between these distinct disciplines. For example, the CMO must make a point of connecting with the CIO to talk about challenges and opportunities related to omni-channel marketing and improved customer engagement. Likewise, CIOs need to keep CMOs informed on the latest technologies and methods to ensure the marketing organization stays on top of new trends and innovations. Before they can develop a truly customer-centric organization, CMOs and CIOs need to decide what that actually looks like. First, they need to agree on the goals they want to achieve. Then, they can choose the metrics they’ll use to gauge the success of their efforts.”

Sympathy for the devil Empathy for the developer

Good marketers can think like their audience. Unfortunately, marketers can’t always think like their own colleagues. Emerging from the silos Arthur mentions will increasingly become a business necessity, but a sudden spike in collaboration also means an increase in the opportunities for cross-departmental friction.

“The best successes I’ve had are when I truly understand why the developers are making the decisions that they’re making,” says Meaghan Fitzgerald, head of marketing for 23snaps, makers of a photo-sharing app tailored for parents. Fitzgerald credits her technical background (“I won’t ever be the person who writes the code base… but I can understand the language they’re speaking”) for helping resolve marketing-IT or marketing-engineering conflicts. “I can more quickly react to what they’re building – and I can also provide more productive feedback that fits into their development cycle and works with the systems they’re using.”

Remember: what may seem obvious to you may not seem obvious to your colleague. The Onion‘s AV Club used to do a column called “Justify Your Existence” in which bands had to, well, justify their existence. Don’t be afraid to justify the existence of your requests in those cases when you’re feeling a disconnect.

Data-driven marketing

Fitzgerald is an exception; most marketers didn’t major in biology, learn from an early age to use the scientific method in their marketing campaigns and then wind up working for outside-the-box startups in Silicon Valley (and now London). So what do you do if you’re a longtime marketer – or new marketer, for that matter – who gets a little shiver when presented with a screenful of numbers?

“If you’re used to going to big events and putting up billboards, I think it’s hard to transition into something that’s very numbers-driven and involves a lot of testing and less of the gut instinct,” Fitzgerald says.

Arthur points out studies that show companies are on board with big data philosophically, but wish they knew how to leverage it a little better. “My advice to CMOs is to understand what big data is, pick a small project to experiment on and don’t be afraid to admit what you don’t know,” she says. “The one certain thing, though, is that your data volume is only going to get bigger, and bigger faster. That fact alone should be a sufficient nudge to move marketers to action in setting out strategies to drive the most ongoing value from what their data contains.”

Data isn’t some giant killjoy that’s come to rain on your creativity party. Adrants’ Steve Hall recently stressed on this blog the importance of allowing big ideas to coexist with big data. Data isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a replacement for taking chances and trusting your gut sometimes.

Is the traditional CMO skill set outdated? Are you better off with a hybrid?

“At Teradata, we definitely see the value of the hybrid approach, although I don’t foresee the CMO and CIO role ever being completely fused,” says Arthur. “There is a definite skills shortage for ‘data scientists’ with marketing data analytics expertise. When counseling clients, we advise them to start small, get their vision and strategy around big data grounded first. It is often advisable at this beginning stage to have a ‘marketing technologist’ in the mix, to serve as something of an interlocutor between the CMO and CIO and their respective departments.”

If you’re newly charting a career course, there is a growing demand in this area. A recent Teradata survey found that there’s a “major shortage” of data science talent and that recent tech grads aren’t filling the void.

Fitzgerald, who worked at IMVU while Eric Ries was developing many of the ideas that became associated with the lean startup movement, thinks that CMOs and CIOs should be less concerned about their shares of the budget pie and “a little bit more worried” about these new hybrids.

“There’s a new breed of both of those roles coming in that wants to sit between the two spaces,” she says. “I’ve seen this from the engineering side and the marketing side. You have technical leads who are as interested in developing the messaging and communicating with the customers as the marketing team is interested in being involved with the product development.”

The flip side of a new opportunity to progress is a new opportunity to stand still. As Brian Kardon previously told us, adapting your skill set won’t always come naturally – and it can’t be done just by reading about things or attending conferences. In the end, of course, it won’t be so much about whether you’ve hired an [insert buzzy job title here], but simply about whether you’re maximizing what’s available to you as a marketer.

Post by Adam McKibbin

Adam McKibbin is the content marketing manager for iMeet Central. His writing has been featured in Adweek, the Chicago Tribune and The Nation, and he’s produced content for some of the leading tech brands on the Fortune 500.