All Things CMO

In this episode, we’re talking with David Cooperstein. He’s an independent marketing and strategy leader whose past clients include PebblePost, Adobe and Ascendant Network. David works with start up companies, including TVision Insights, SummitSync and Cuebiq, on marketing, positioning and strategic advice.

I wanted to talk with David because he’s been a CMO and spent many years advising them when he was at Forrester. He knows what he’s talking about.

You can listen above or follow along at home with the handy transcript, edited with a very light touch.

Mark: David Cooperstein, it’s great to have you on Confessions of a Marketer. Welcome.

David: Great thank you, Mark. I’m glad to be here.

Mark: The average tenure for a CMO is much shorter than other C-level positions. Why do you think that is? And what advice would you give to a CMO taking a seat today so they can beat the odds?

David: I think this is true for a couple of reasons–one of which I’ll get to later when we talk about the type of CMO that fills the role for a company. But from what I’ve seen–and from people that I’ve met–CMOs to tend to stay at places shorter. So those who sort of fit into the category of applying the same approach to a different company–they sort of take their roadmap to successful marketing and they put it in place and they execute. And then they get to a point where they’re ready to redo the roadmap. So I think they tend to go in there with more of a project mentality or more of an “I know what I’m doing here” mentality. And then they get to a certain point where the plan that they have in place works or not. If it doesn’t work that’s a different reason for why they might leave. But if it works then they get to a point where their value coming into the company is expended. And, depending on the type of person they are, either they will modify their plan to take on some new role within the company or take marketing in a new trajectory or they will take on the next role that allows them to do the same thing.

So those CMOs that stay in place for one to two years–or two to three years, max–I think those are the people who tend to come in thinking they know the answer and they know how to get it done and then when they get that part done they’re ready move on. You know, they pull in their agency, they made their  changes and that’s it. Those who stay place longer, from what I’ve seen, they have a longer view of all the aspects of their role so they think about the media that they need to change, how they think about market operations, their role in the product development for the company, and their role as a corporate strategist and the corporate executive. And they engage far beyond the sort of executional elements that road map person might approach the job with. So when I think about people who stayed in a job for a long time like Marc Pritchard at P&G, which is more of a consumer company, or Ann Lewnes at Adobe, who’s been there for 11 years now as CMO, or even people like Joe Tripodi who has had multiple long stints as CMO–he’s now at Subway but he was at Coke for eight years–and even Jonathan Mildenhall, who was until recently the CMO at Airbnb, who was there for three and a half years.

Even in that broad mix of B2B, consumer and startup companies, I they all had a long-term view of what they were trying to achieve. And that wasn’t to drive the marketing message. It was more, “How do I drive the company to success?” And that may sometimes include marketing and may include the product. It may include some of the operational technology implications of what the company is doing. Marc Pritchard’s now on an industry-wide bandwagon to change the way marketers account for their digital media spend. And that is something that P&G benefits from tremendously because they spent $2 billion a year in advertising. But it’s also a fundamental relook at a very rapidly moving change in the way they did marketing and then rationalizing it to see if it made sense or not.

And that’s a corporate executive’s responsibility. Not all CMO’s go in with that level of thought process. So, to me, the ones who stayed the longest, the ones who stay more than the average of, I think it’s 4.2 years at the moment, they define strategy, they evangelize the business. They basically bring the customer to the table and make the company think about what the customer wants from the business, not just what the operations or the product want to give the customer. I think that’s a beneficial way of going to market. And the people I mentioned, they’re probably more business people than marketers, but their role in the organization is an operating role. And so, I say that, and then two things that I want to point out: One is that a CMOs’ tenure is not that much shorter than CIOs, from a recent Harvard Business School study that I saw–maybe a half a year shorter. CFOs do also change jobs more frequently but that’s sort of the baked and so the way they think about their job. But I like what Adam Bryant and the New York Times pointed out this past weekend.

He’s been writing the column called the Corner Office for the New York Times for the last 10 years and he summed up all of what he did in terms of those interviews–I think 525 interviews–and he concluded, based on all that research and all that analysis of what he had learned, that there was really no one way to define success in a senior leadership role. It really depends on the company and what you bring to the table and unique aspects of a person’s life that help them be successful. And just one other thing I’d mention here is that not all these turnovers are involuntary. Some of them are quite voluntary. And that I would attribute to the ambitious nature of a lot of CMOs because they like to be highly visible people that are leaning forward into what the customer wants. They tend to be more in the public spotlight than the other C-level executives. Some CEOs, obviously, are in the public spotlight but CMOs tend to be in the spotlight. And, from the past research I’ve done for my years at Forrester, one of the things that CMOs very often aspire to was either the next big company–so go higher on the revenue front. Or they are looking for a CEO seat. So they sometimes move around voluntarily because they want to find the right fit for them to move into the corner office themselves.

Mark: It really shows the breadth of what a CMO does these days. It’s not just marketing.

David: Yes that’s correct.

Mark: So what are the major pressures on CMOs these days? What do you see?

David: The pressure for the CMO is fairly unique. So one thing that causes pressure for the CMO I think is that there is not a degree that says you are an expert and you’ve been certified as the best CMO on the planet, which is frustrating because it’s all what you bring to the table. It’s a very individual job and you bring to it what you have had in terms of experience and knowledge and your ability to work with others. So that’s a pressure that’s sort of inherent in the fact that it is a job that could come from a person in operations or sales or have a career built in marketing or product. So that’s one kind of pressure. But, specifically, the pressure I think that comes with the territory is that people often refer to marketing as having a T-shape–where you have to look horizontally across the top of the T and you also have to look down into the organization. And, for me, the big challenge with CMOs is that they are constantly playing the corporate executive game as well as managing their department and then, as well, making all the customers and all the employees feel good about their jobs–or their relationships with the company, I should say. So there are pressures inside and outside the company that land on the CMO’s lap.

I think, for B2B in particular, they feel the pressure from the sales teams. Those are individuals who want more leads, they want story to be clear, they want the collateral in front of them so they can make the pitch to their next customer. And they want the CMO to be responsible for translating the customer’s needs into all those stories that need to be told to drive business. So there’s a lot of pressure from the inside to make sure that they are hearing and understanding what the need is on the outside. With consumer brands, you know, marketing is basically responsible for driving growth in the business. There is a sales team in some of those companies that is managing the channel–the retailers. But the marketer–especially the CMO–needs to be thinking about: “Is the product competitive? Is it staying fresh? Is our messaging unique? Are we reading the numbers with all the different tools of lead gen?” In the consumer space, I don’t know we’d call lead gen. But all the different ways of driving growth for an organization all fall, at some point, into the marketer’s lap of making sure that decision–whether it’a media decision or a creative decision or a product positioning decision–that all falls in the marketer’s lap.

And when the numbers hit the skids, very often people look at the marketers and  say, “Why did that happen?” And so, you add that to the fact that marketing, as an organization, has never really had technology support its development–and now you’re looking at the same change management issues in marketing that affected supply chain in the past and finance in the past, and sales in the more recent past. They’ve all had that technology at their disposal, and marketers are just now getting their hands around, “What does all the technology mean?” “What does all the data that that technology spits out mean?” “And how do I change my marketing approach to deal with that?”.

So that’s another level of pressure that they’re feeling. So, you know, it’s a changing role–I should say it’s changing discipline. And CMOs are right in that sort of midpoint of if they’ve grown up in the new way of marketing, they may be missing some old-school ways of understanding what marketing does. And if they’ve grown up in the old world, these are hard things to learn because it wasn’t what they were trained to do as marketers.

Mark: In my experience, the marketing group is one of the biggest consumers of technology resources in most companies now.

David: Now it is. I would say that the big change has been–I don’t know if it’s just technology but certainly most of the data is filtered through marketing because decisions have to be made about customer experience, about channels that are working or not working, about customer satisfaction. A lot of the NPS scores are collected for the marketers to decide whether they need to change positioning or change messaging. There’s still a lot of technology that affects supply chain and finance and all that, but the newest spending, I think, is coming from the marketing teams.

Mark: And what’s interesting is that the development of SaaS technology has really taken the burden off the internal IT resources. You can go on you can get Salesforce, you can get all those web-based tools that didn’t exist 15 years ago.

David: Yeah, I think for smaller companies that’s definitely true–that you can go out and just say, “I want to establish a contract with Salesforce and HubSpot and buy media off Facebook directly and do some of the things that are fairly easy to just log into and start acting on.”.

I think, for bigger companies, the challenge is how do those tools, which they are tools, impact the foundation of a company–which is the data and the product–to make sure that there is an integration. And so I think that’s true that the traditional IT department doesn’t have a strong role to play because of SaaS. But there is a very strong new set of people in the marketing operations group or the marketing technologists group that has to think about, “How are we going to use these tools to our advantage and not have so many that we don’t actually know what they are doing?” And managing those marketing stacks is one of the challenges that I don’t think many marketers, circa five years ago and longer, ever thought was going to be an issue.

But there are layers and layers of technology, all of which do very specific things. And deciding on which technology to deploy for your particular marketing problems is a big challenge, given that there is, I think in the latest MarTech display, about 4,500 companies that take their tiny little bit of the marketing piece and try to manage it.

Mark: Let’s talk about personalities. There are a few types of CMOs–fairly commonly thought of as Builders, Fixers and Scalers. Do you think these skills, which kind of appear to be specialized pigeonhole a CMO? Or do you think a Builder can become a Fixer and so forth?

David: Let me take that two ways. These three categories, if you will, of skills–I don’t think there are individual skills. I think the Builder, the Fixer and the Scaler have different things that they bring to the table, but its more than one thing. And so I think of them as more mindsets that come with a set of skills. Like, the Builder knows how to do that initial integration of technology and they also know how to scale up media plans and they understand how to do positioning and  setting a core message for the business.

I would think they tend to hire Scalers, if they are early on in the company’s life and bring in a Scaler  who can do the lead gen on the B2B side or can do to grow hacking on the B2C side. And that is a different person, in some cases. But the Scaler needs to also be sure that they are scaling in the right direction and it’s sustainable. And, so I think the Builder in the Scaler probably work hand-in-hand. I think the Fixer is the one that comes in if the Builder didn’t do the right job or if, just over time, what the Builder built is no longer relevant to the marketplace. And then you have a Fixer come in–the Foixer is probably more of a later-stage person–again, if you’re talking startups.

Mark: Although, maybe some CMOs think of themselves as Fixers even if they’re in a building phase or a scaling phase because they want to come in and fix whatever happened before them.

David: Yeah, I would I would consider myself to be in that category of: If you’re fixing the fact that nothing exists, that’s a fixer.

Or that they delayed marketing for too long or they thought they had an idea for what marketing was and decided that it wasn’t right. That’s that’s why the Fixer comes in.

The CMO is not always the first hire. That’s a good debate to have–about when, on the startup side, you bring in a CMO. Because I believe that setting positioning early-on is the right thing to do. You may want to adjust that as you get Product-Market-Fit, but those two things should be going hand-in-hand. The marketer can help determine that before they start doing a lot of spending. But, you’re right, it depends on what needs to be fixed. But the builder is the one that is laying the foundation. So, maybe it’s just the order of them. I would say, you fix it first and figure out what it’s going to be. Then you build it and then you scale it. But, the main point is I don’t think it necessarily pigeonholes the CMO. If they’re really good as a strategist they should be able to do the right thing for the company at the time. But there are two other ways that I think about this question of what is the category of CMO you’re looking for if you’re a CEO looking to hire. The first way to think of it is this: I think there’s a difference between a Strategist and an Executor. So, at that first level, the Strategist is somebody who’s going to be more of the big thinker–probably good at positioning, probably good at competitive analysis and probably good at thinking about, “What are all the things that we need to do to make sure the company has a clear path to a unique value proposition,” and then markets that.

I think the Executor is the one that understands and can take that brand direction and apply it. That’s a person who’s thinking about–again, depending on the organization–lead development, sales decks, on the consumer side the right campaigns for the right audience at the right time, and how to work with data. I think the Executors are the ones that take the story from the Strategists and they put it into practice. And I think that’s a complement–I think some CMOs are very tactical and very Executor-oriented. I think that’s OK, it depends on what the company needs. But I think the Strategist is the one that is more the big-picture thinker who doesn’t get distracted by the tactics. But there’s also data wonks versus creative people. And there’s also people who are advertising-centric versus people who are customer-focused and want to tell the story to individual customers. So there’s a couple of different ways to think about that.

But, just one other approach to this answer–and I know give you a lot of different options here–but I also think it’s up to the CEO to decide what they need the CMO to do. So, when you think about tenure and you think about why a CMO might last or not, sometimes it’s that the CEO thought they needed a brand fix that they actually need a technology reboot. Or they needed somebody who was very product focused to run product marketing, along with brand, but didn’t hire that person when they started out because they thought it was a brand problem. So there’s a great Harvard Business School article written about this topic, which is called “The Trouble with CMOs.” I love the title.

Mark: It hits close to home, huh?

David: Exactly. Part of the trouble is that they’re not all the same–and that’s really the one-sentence conclusion from the article. But, depending on what the company needs, there are, sort of, enterprise P&L type CMOs and those people are almost like the CEO of marketing. So they’ll have customer service and product and all these other factors reporting into them because they’re responsible for making sure P&L is successful for their particular slice of the business, or the whole business, depending on their role.

Then there is the strategist–and the strategist is really the thinker, the one who’s making the big decisions. But then has a team of executors, say in a brand organization where you’ve got a lot of brand marketers supporting the CMO. There’s that strategist whose job is really to make sure that they’re thinking about growth, they’re thinking about innovation and they’re making sure that people around the company are executing on that. But that’s a CMO kind of like a Marc Pritchard model, where they have a very strategic role but there’s a lot of people executing underneath them. And then the role that is probably very familiar to most CMOs is the commercialization role, which is–whether it’s running advertising campaigns or running sales campaigns or signing up for events–it’s the act of commercializing what the marketing organization is trying to do, so that the teams that are driving revenue can do their jobs. And that is probably the most common form of CMO, where they are in lockstep with whoever is driving the actual closing of business–whether it’s a retail channel or a B2B sales team–whoever is closing that business is gaining support from the marketing team and commercialization role is obviously a critically important one to a lot of CEOs.

Mark: If you’ve got a great offer today to be a CMO and you started say next Monday what would your–I know that’s a short turnaround isn’t it?

David: Well, smaller companies act that quickly!

Mark: What would your first week or month look like? And, in the thought of giving  CMOs some advice here, what do you think they should tackle first?

David: So, I think the most important thing to do, walking into a company is not assume any answers.

And, very often, this is hard for a CMO because the CEO picks up on something and that they said, “This is how it’s happened for me.” The CEO and the CMO candidate are a conversation and they say something that is almost like the exact same as the CEO is thinking about what had me able to verbalize in terms of positioning. But then, you get the job and you walk in the door the first day and nobody else was in that conversation. So I think the first thing that needs to happen–and what I would be doing–is setting up meetings with all the people in the teams, and not just at the senior level, but anybody who is customer-facing first and then other people in the organization after that. And talk to customers–talk to as many customers as possible in those first couple of weeks with the intent of learning not why they’re a customer but how they justified spending money with the company. So whether that’s a consumer using shampoo or a an enterprise buying some big software product, or company buying energy–I think it’s really important to understand what is it that that person had to do in order to justify their expense.

Because that’s where you find out where the rubber really meets the road. You know, “I bought this versus that.” Or, you know, “I had to justify my expenditure because this is a new the new thing that I wanted to buy.”

And I think learning that comes from hearing the customer say specifically, “I bought this because…” And, even the consumer: you know, why do you buy that shampoo? “It could be because I got a coupon, it could be because packaging was nice, could be the smell was great.” You don’t know that until you actually ask the question. Otherwise, you’re making a lot of assumptions. And I think the important thing in the first couple of weeks is not to make assumptions, but to talk to people. And I would say also, within that month, there does need to be something that happens that is a powerful indication that you’re the CMO and you’re here to make something better. So, whether it’s just hosting something internally as a get together or something that communicates that you’re on the side of both the employees and the customers. I think it’s a good thing to do sometime in the first month–could be small but widely penetrated, like doing a customer roundtable with internal folks. But just something to get the ground moving on what your reputation’s going to be because that’s going to be a big stage setter for how you get perceived as you roll out new marketing plans and new messages.

And, then, the other thing is–people are very big on, especially in the interview process, doing a 30-, 60-, 90-day plan. I think it’s sort of an awkward manufacturing of timeframes based on the calendar. Because, the reality is that, let’s say the website is the most important thing to tackle first–that doesn’t take a neat amount of time. It could be faster if you just want to get it done or slower if you want to get the right agency in to do the work. So the thing to do by the end of that first 30 to 60 days is have a very concrete plan for the prioritization of change–and start getting things done, recognizing that there are some things that are ongoing that need to be attended to. And be clear about where the new things are going to come in and replace the old things. And then also to obviously make sure the team is doing what they need to do to get their work done. So when I advise CMOs, what to do, I say, “Try to think about one thing that is not going to be your final statement but is a big statement to make about your role in the company. Get to know as many people as possible, both inside and outside, because they’re going to tell you what the answer is.” You know, the answer is going to come from the people who are actually putting money on your table. And then the third thing is to make sure your plan is one of prioritization, not timing. And then, obviously timing is a part of that plan, but what comes first may be because it has the longest lead time or it’s an important statement about where the company needs to be. Rather than a website, it could be that doing the website requires a vision mission statement refresh. And getting that done might be the first big play to make. But getting that done the right way is a really important first step. So the main advice to any marketer is to make sure you’re thinking about, very carefully, what are the pieces that need to be put together. And make sure you’re not doing it just in a vacuum–that you’re engaging the company and the customers.

Mark: That’s great advice David. I really appreciate you being here on Confessions of a Marketer. I think our audience has learned a lot.

David: Great. I appreciate it. Thank you, Mark.


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