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The Evolving Role of the CMO

How Data and Digital Have Transformed Marketing and its Leaders 

The work of the Chief Marketing Officer is no longer complete once a campaign is launched or a product hits the shelves. At one time entirely focused on creative and brand, today’s Marketing executives are responsible for the entire customer journey, from discovery to maturity, and technology has enabled them to know more about their target audiences than ever before. 

In the era of billboards and radio ads, traceability was amorphous and presumptive. Today, consumer behavior is a measurable set of data points, collected across every conceivable touchpoint —from a Google search to the swipe of a loyalty card. In 2020, 78% of marketers describe their customer engagement as data-driven and now use an average of six data management tools, compared with just three in 2018.  

For marketers that have spent their careers in a world without such access to data, the pressure to understand how to mine and leverage it can be overwhelming. COVID-19 has only flamed the urgency to adapt, with trends in e-commerce and digital communication accelerating exponentially and traditional Marketing channels, like events and in-store activations, being rendered incompatible in our new reality.  

We sat down with Michelle Flynn, Client Partner at Architech, and Craig Lund, President of Marketing Talent Inc., to get their perspectives on how our digital and data-driven world has redefined the role of the Chief Marketing Officer. While both agree that an understanding of technology is critical, they also insist that traditional marketers bring a lot of value to the C-suite table, value that has and will only continue to drive tangible business results. Here is their perspective on how Marketing has evolved, and how traditional marketers can evolve along with it.   

How have you noticed the role of the CMO change over the last several years?

Michelle Flynn: In the past, Marketing budgets just covered what we called the ‘front-end’ of the website. Meaning that if they were running a campaign, they would own the campaign landing page and oversee the assets needed for that page to create a conversion. Now we’re seeing the budgets shift, with the responsibilities of the CMO expanding to include the infrastructure of the website as a whole. No longer are CMOs just looking at that customer-facing frontend. They need to know what happens throughout the customer journey all the way through. For instance, what happens when the customer submits a request to speak to you? How does that journey continue through until the sale is made? In our work with clients at ArchitechMarketing input is needed in the discovery phase more than it ever has before because we need to make sure that we understand their customer personas and who they’re going after We also need to understand how the end-customer is going to interact with the technology in order to avoid building something that nobody is going to use.  

Craig Lund: The CMO is now making decisions that aren’t just “putting lipstick on the pig,” so to speak. Companies are realizing that the face is actually attached to the entire body, and it feeds the body, so finding new tools or technologies that lead to a transactionnurture a customer, and carry them through that entire journey has become a big part of the CMO’s job. Whereas before traceability was really circumstantial, now we can see a customer’s overall spend and behavior with a company over time. Businesses can use this data to adjust their offering. It’s less about creating demand around an existing product and more about pivoting a product to serve the customer’s needs.

Is there a skill or an area of knowledge that you think every CMO or senior-level marketer should learn in order to better prepare themselves for the new demands of Marketing?

C: In the CMO panels that I’ve hosted over the last few years, we’ve had cross-sections of people talking about what’s required. What they’re learning is that agility in people is critical. People that are one-trick ponies tend to have a bubble. They only think in that realm. What they are finding is generalists are actually really good at filling the gap with experts rather than being the expert themselves. That ability to pivot, move, and adjust becomes the foundational ability of the CMO. Cheryl Fullerton, EVP of People & Communications at Corus Entertainment, has talked about this, saying that people who had very specific skill sets are more difficult to repurpose in the organization when disruption occurs. On the other hand, people that were able to self-learn find new ways of doing things, and knew how to apply the skills they had acquired to affect change internally and were much more successful.  

M: I always encourage CMOs to sit with their technology lead, whether it’s the CTO or the CIO, and have an open discussion on how to meet their objectives together. I’m a strong believer that skills can be learned, especially when it comes to new technologies.  

In terms of all of our skill sets, I think the ability to embrace change is the biggest one you can go after. Be willing to be flexible, understand what agile means, and do the best you can to follow Agile practices. The most common question we get is: “Why do I want to invest in this technology? How do I know it’s not going to change in two years, and we’ll need to redo everything?” But if you learn to think in an agile way, you begin to see that change is inevitable, and in the meantime, why not build new features and new functionalities that are going to improve the overall experience of your customer and lead to more business? As well, be willing to think long term and not resign to doing something once and then never touching it again. Modern technology allows you to set bigger goals and iterate to meet those goals over and over again, rather than needing to start from scratch each time.  

Michelle, in your work with clients, have you noticed any challenges with bringing the CMO to the table alongside the CTO and their team?

M: We’ve noticed more opportunities than challenges. We understand how to have a business conversation, how to have the roadmap conversation, and how to understand the objectives of the company. We also know the technology process and how a product roadmap works as well, so we have been able to help the CMO understand and empower them to take on this new role. There’s never any resistance, it’s simply a brand new area for them and an opportunity to embrace change. Especially when it comes to CMOs having to focus on the infrastructure piece. For example, if they’re using an Adobe tech stack, how does that impact the website that they’re building it on? How does it impact the paid search ads that they’re doing? This is brand new territory. 

What used to happen when we worked primarily with CTOs is that they would come to us with a request, and we would say: “Great! Here’s how to accomplish your goal, here’s our quote, and let’s get started.” Then we’d get roadblocked by Marketing who would later say: “Wait a second, we can’t do that” for whatever reason, whether because it went against the company’s values or was misaligned to their customer base. Now that everyone’s at the table together we can have those critical conversations much earlier, the process unfolds much more smoothly, and the end result is a better product.

What do you think is the benefit of working with a partner like Architech versus having an in-house technology team?

M: We view our client relationships as strategic partnerships because we’re truly invested in our clients’ long-term growth. As a partner, we leverage our team’s skillset in Agile methodologies and best practices across industry-leading technology and design to take the pressure off our clients in terms of finding the right in-house talent. We have spent the last two decades building a team of experts with a wealth of knowledge and experience in supporting enterprise companies across multiple industries digitally transform and realize the power of modern technologies. With our vast experience in modernization, our team continues to help organizations improve their digital platform performance and better connect and serve their customers. By bringing our knowledge and insight to the table, we give our clients a competitive advantage. 

Craig, when it comes to specific skills, which ones do you think will most benefit a CMO in today’s digital climate? 

 C: Customer Relation Management. If you’re looking for a really great example of a company that’s nailed it, look at what Loblaws has done. That PC Optimum program allowed them to exponentially grow a customer base that they could talk to on a weekly and sometimes daily basis, and the driver behind that program was their CMO. It has transformed people’s perception of the company — they’re now seen as a company vital to the Canadian economy and to food security. Loblaws took what could have been viewed as simply a promotional tool or loyalty program and, by looking further down the road, made it both.  

How do you think the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted business as usual, particularly when it comes to Marketing?  

M: To be honest with you, we haven’t been impacted as much as other industries. As a company, we eat, breathe, and sleep Agile. So, pivoting and changing direction for us is something that comes naturally. That said, our clients have been impacted — retail, for example, has suffered, as well as organizations that were never comfortable with agility in the first place. But, for the most part, the clients that we have been working with have been working on technology roadmaps for the last few years, and they haven’t really had to pivot far from that strategy — instead, their strategy has just been accelerated.  

C: If you look at companies that have been disrupted or needed to pivot, they’ve had to figure out how to stay front and center without pitching and selling at a time when that can be viewed as tone-deaf or disingenuous. This falls on Marketing a lot of the time, and the effects of launching a campaign too soon can be disastrous for a company that’s done a really good job at building their brand over time. Now is when Marketing needs to exercise their EQ by listening to customers more than ever.  

How can a CMO prove their value? 

C: People who are known as connectors in the organization — those with high EQ — are the ones that make it successful.  

believe that if you think about the circumstances right now, the CMO plays a big role in ensuring that the company is operating in a way that is greater than its own profits. What are we doing to help our people and planet, as well as profits? Somebody needs to keep an eye on that. People are open to reinvention and to companies that are being more empathetic and changing the way they do business. There is no reason to do business the way we used to.  

M: It’s often been said that Marketing is fluffy, or simply about storytelling and not based in fact. But when you partner with your technology lead, they can help you provide the business cases that you need in order to push some of your Marketing efforts forward. As the president of the American Marketing Association, I have been encouraging people to really understand where technology is going, what it means to be in the cloud, how it benefits your business and how you can leverage data in order to prove Marketing’s worth. The end goal is usually customer service excellence, so by partnering with technology you can make the case for how Marketing combined with technology improves the customer experience and drives the business forward. 

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