Your next CEO? The case for your CMO

For marketers, the corporate ladder traditionally is missing a rung or two. Climb to the lofty heights of CMO-dom, sure. Oversee a billion-dollar marketing budget, no problem. But run the whole show? That was best left to the masters of finance, operations and business development.

“Looking back a bit, it is not surprising that the person who, essentially, managed the advertising budget and communications plan was not going to be a natural candidate for the role of CEO. However, today the role of a CMO is a million miles away from that,” said Jeff Dodds, who himself made the transition from CMO (Virgin Media) to CEO (Tele2Netherlands).

Today, there are a number of reasons why the CMO could be holding the winning ticket.


Customer ownership

“Ownership” is the wrong word; as we’ve written before, your customers shouldn’t be quarantined to a single department. But no one is better poised to have a comprehensive and personalized customer perspective than a well-prepared CMO.

“As the CMO continues to own the customer across all channels—as well as the data that drives the business—the CMO quickly becomes a logical person to own the company’s growth agenda in the CEO role,” said Deloitte Consulting principal David Shrank. “Transforming a company or reversing slumping sales requires what I call ‘journey thinking’—the act of looking at your entire company from the mind-set of your customers and understanding each of these unique customer journeys in ways that allow you to make the most of every touch point.”


Cross-departmental collaboration

To best serve the customer, marketers have to first get to know their colleagues.

“How do you deliver better outcomes for customers?” GE SVP and CMO Beth Comstock asked. “You have to wrap yourself around the way your customer’s company operates. You have to understand the journey from the CFO’s office, the CEO’s office, the CMO… the entire C-suite.”

“Marketing is a great training ground as you develop key skills that are needed in a CEO role,” said thinkThin president/CEO Michele Kessler. “In many marketing roles, you have to demonstrate results and to accomplish results requires leadership across the enterprise. Many functions work primarily within-function; marketing can’t.”


Data-driven ROI

In the old days, part of the skepticism around turning over the keys to a CMO would have been based on the idea that a chief marketer was mostly a creative, better with ads and fonts than dollars and cents. Today’s marketer, of course, looks pretty different.

“I like to say that marketing today is 30 percent traditional marketing, 30 percent IT, 30 percent analytics, and 10 percent politics,” said Club Med CMO Jerome Hiquet.

In such a data-driven, results-oriented era, there is much more of an overlap in skill sets between CMO and the ideal CEO.



Even for (perhaps especially for) well-established giants in a given industry, complacency is a fatal disease. The so-called “transformational” CMO is used to moving quickly, to embracing new platforms, to experimenting, to failing and learning and trying again. Even without an office change and a pay raise, the CMO can still make a major impact by infusing this philosophy into the culture of the company.


Good leaders are good leaders

Beyond emerging trends and role evolution, successful CMOs have always had at least one simple albeit powerful case to make for themselves: they’re proven leaders and team-builders who are (hopefully) smart enough to know what they don’t know.

“It’s not the ‘M’ in CMO that matters most. I think it’s how good a chief you are,” executive recruiter Nick Corcodilos told


The trailblazers

A number of prominent executives have already made the leap from CMO to CEO. This seems to be a popular trend for luxury car companies; Audi president Scott Keough took the reins after years of serving as the company’s CMO, and ex-Mercedes CEO Steve Cannon (now the CEO of AMB Group LLC) made a similar jump.

They also share a similar philosophy that’s helped them move up the ladder.

“Keogh believes that a successful brand takes it own road, and he’s willing to gamble to prove it,” said Adweek.

“You have to adapt, to carve out money from mobile to serve social. You have to have a certain amount of risk appetite, take some strategic leaps of faith,” said Cannon. “All those things led me nicely into the corner office.”

Jill McDonald, former CEO of McDonald’s UK and CEO of biking giant Halfords, never set out to claim the corner office; she had her sights squarely on the CMO’s office. Once there, though, her colleagues began suggesting she could take another step.

“You own your future,” she told Marketing Week. “Build your experience, put your neck out [and] put yourself forward for projects outside your remit.” By breaking out of old-fashioned silos, modern marketers are learning more about business operations and forging relationships with collaborators across the org chart.

“Live in the horizontal, not the vertical,” advised Dodds.

A cautionary note, though: if you work for a company that considers marketing an afterthought, you’re not climbing the mountaintop.

“[You need to understand] which organisations value marketers and put them at the top table,” McDonald said. “McDonald’s values marketing very highly and therefore I was a key player on the board with a number of other colleagues. In other places, like British Airways, commercial was at the top table but marketing wasn’t, so that would make it even harder to get there.”

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.