About once a week it seems, we are reminded that CMO tenure is unusually short. I have heard figures ranging from 23 months to 45 months. Both of these numbers are astonishingly low compared to others execs in the C-Suite: eight years for CEOs and ten years for CFOs. So why is CMO tenure so short? Experts have pointed to a host of reasons: the explosion of social media, the rise of big data, general complexity and chaos, incompetence…
But what I haven’t seen is a serious discussion of the person directly responsible for the length of employment of the CMO: the CEO.
As I argue in my new book, the best-run and most successful companies convey one clear, understandable story through every action that they take, not solely through their marketing. And these companies tell their story through the products that they make, the services they provide, even in the way they incentivize and reward employees. And the only person who can manage this story is the CEO.
Yet the majority of CEOs pass this responsibility to others— the CMO, usually. This needs to change, and shareholders and other stakeholders need to start holding CEOs’ feet to the fire. Because there is growing evidence that the most successful businesses today are run by CEOs who embrace story, and who think of themselves as Chief Story Officers.
There are a handful of enlightened CEOs, of course, who’ve embraced story for years. Nike founder and former CEO Phil Knight and current CEO Mark Parker take a personal interest in the Nike narrative. From shoes and shirts to digital platforms to physical retail spaces to ads — they make sure that everything Nike makes advances its story. David Neeleman, founder and former CEO of JetBlue, hated advertising, and preferred to convey JetBlue’s story through innovation and customer experience. And Steve Jobs, of course, would spend two hours a week with his marketing partners looking at ad concepts in development. He didn’t do this because he was a particular fan of advertising; he did this because he considered everything that Apple made to be a vital part of Apple’s story, and therefore worthy of this personal attention.
A new generation of enlightened CEO’s are taking the power of story even further, and by conveying their story almost exclusively through action, not communication, they are reducing costs in the process. These companies are almost all do and no tell. Dietrich Mateschitz at RedBull, Jeff Bezos at Amazon, Blake Myckoskie at TOMS shoes and many more are creating huge successes with ad budgets approaching zero. They are doing this by first understanding the narrative they wish to advance in the world, and then by making sure that their products and customer experiences advance that narrative coherently and convincingly. In these companies, story and product are two sides of the same coin.
These leaders are a cause for optimism, but they’re still exceptions to the rule.
The vast majority of CEOs aren’t taking the time to understand their story and how it relates to their products. Instead, they are continuing to separate product from story, and pushing responsibility for story down to the marketing department. By doing this, they are giving their CMOs an impossible job—marshall a story that is unfolding across the entire enterprise — product development and customer service— areas that most CMOs don’t touch or can’t control. Yet they are still holding the CMO responsible for results. No wonder the qualities sought in a CMO these days might be mistaken for those of a bullfighter or a test pilot. CEOs who stick with this model will struggle to keep the best marketing talent over the coming years, as more enlightened competitors poach the most ambitious marketing stars and empower them to quarterback the story across the whole organization.
If you are a CEO or an aspiring CEO, the evidence is clear: becoming a student of the underlying narrative of your business, and learning how to manage and tell that story through coordinated action, not merely through communication, can be a powerful competitive advantage. Make understanding and telling your company’s story both a shared responsibility across the whole organization and a core value of the company. If you do this, you (and more importantly, your shareholders) will reap the rewards.
You might find that your CMO last longer as well.
Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Copyright 2013 Ty Montague. All rights reserved.