Spotlight on the Trouble With CMOs: Reflections of a 6-Time CMO
Customer - Blue Color Text on Digital Background.
Joe Tripodi was appointed to the top marketing job at MasterCard in 1989 and since then has served as the chief marketing officer of Seagram’s, the Bank of New York, Allstate, Coca-Cola and Subway. He spoke with Harvard Business Review about the evolution and particular challenges of the job.
Q: How has the chief marketing officer’s role changed since you first held it?
A: Originally, CMOs focused mostly on advertising and communications. Today the role requires a view of how to grow a brand and an enterprise — and how to partner with other parts of the business to drive that growth. There’s a huge focus on data and analytics and how to use them to segment and target consumers. Smart data is the future. Analytics allows for precision marketing, as opposed to a “spray and pray” approach. And now more than ever, the focus is on customers and the customer journey. More CMOs are becoming responsible for the customer experience. It’s great to create marketing plans in an ivory tower, but unless you can have an impact in the actual place where customers are — in restaurants or stores — you won’t succeed.
Q: As CMO responsibilities have shifted, how has the way you spend your time each day changed?
A: I spend much more time on digital issues and analyzing and understanding data, and much less time dealing with ad agencies. Since my role is global, I also spend time thinking about how to scale ideas and get people out of silos — about providing broader strategic leadership and encouraging the exchange of best practices and information across regions, rather than focusing on the marketing issues within a particular country. And I talk a lot about a large global enterprise’s need to proactively manage networks. Those include internal networks of constituents who have a direct stake in your enterprise, and outside networks of influencers who can significantly impact your business, such as analysts, bloggers, opinion elites, NGOs, suppliers and governmental entities. Most critically, you need to engage consumer networks through digital interactions. The required skills are much different from when I began my career.
Q: How much variation is there in how CEOs view the role?
A: It’s surprising that even in large, sophisticated organizations, many CEOs still view the CMO’s primary job as advertising. If I’m going into a company, I try to shift that view to be more holistic. Advertising is only a small part of what needs to be done to build the brand and the business. A CMO should be responsible for R&D, innovation, pricing, packaging, the customer experience and other growth levers. It does no good to create compelling ads that run in prime time and then under-deliver in the retail environment. But a lot of CMOs exacerbate the narrow views that people have of the role.
A: The first thing many do after they’re hired is conduct an advertising review, hire a new agency and launch a new campaign. That sets up an expectation that new ads will fundamentally change the trajectory of the business. When a CMO stakes his or her claim on a new campaign and you don’t see a demonstrable change, it suggests the CMO has failed, so the company gets rid of the person. The challenge might have been distribution, pricing or product quality. Don’t think that communications can solve broader business challenges. At Coca-Cola, I was the seventh CMO in 10 years. I told the person doing the hiring: “Whether you hire me or not, this kind of turnover is not good for your company, and you have to find a way to fix this problem.” I’m proud to say I survived for seven and a half years there.
Q: Hasn’t the marketing function always tended to come under fire, because of the challenge of delivering revenue?
A: Yes, there’s an inherent riskiness to it. Marketing lives in a murky world, where you’re always having to explain what the company is getting in return for its large ad expenditures. That causes a lot of to-ing and fro-ing with [chief financial officers]. It’s incumbent upon CMOs to demonstrate clear value and convince everyone that marketing is not an expense but an investment. Also, when it comes to advertising, everyone is an expert — employees, the public, franchisees, even retirees. You hear a lot of opinions and second-guessing. That can also set the CMO up for challenges.
Q: As CMOs have gained responsibilities, has it been at the expense of other C-suite officers?
A: I don’t see it that way. Many of the new responsibilities stem from entirely new ways of communicating or connecting with customers, such as social media or e-commerce, so it’s not as if they’ve been taken away from someone else. And many of them are shared with the [chief information officer]. Today, unless a CMO’s closest business partner is the CIO, you won’t have a very effective organization.
Q: Because the role is so varied, must CMO candidates do more due diligence on potential employers than other C-suite executives do?
A: You really have to network and do forensic-level analysis to find the unvarnished truth. You’re being sold by the recruiter and the people inside the company, and jobs often aren’t what they appear to be. There is no such thing as “truth in advertising” when you’re being recruited. When I became the CMO at the Bank of New York, the company said it wanted to become more customer-driven and customer-focused. When I arrived, I found they actually had little appetite to invest in those areas, so I didn’t last long. You learn from your mistakes. I should have done more due diligence. Now I do.
Q: How do you convince a CEO that the CMO role needs to be designed differently?
A: You need to have an upfront conversation before you take the job. How are you going to measure success? If the CMO should be the champion for growth, will he or she have the right levers or the influence over those levers? You also must be sure you understand what’s really driving the business, both today and in the future. Is the company prepared to invest in the capabilities and infrastructure to win in the future? Can you agree on what is needed to be successful? If not, you are being set up to fail.
Q: What kind of personality traits should a CMO have?
A: You need to be comfortable living amid inherent contradictions. You have to drive growth but do it in a sustainable way. You have to focus on global strategies but recognize that the best marketing is often done locally. You have to be able to position your brand as timeless but still relevant. You must be focused on product quality but keep an eye on cost-effectiveness. You want to offer customers choice but without overwhelming your supply chain. It comes down to having dexterity, mental agility and the ability to balance these competing priorities and contradictions.
Q: Is it difficult for a CMO to jump between industries, as you’ve done?
A: It hasn’t been for me. A widget is a widget. Whether I was working with credit cards, liquor, insurance, beverages or sandwiches, I’ve found that the fundamental principles of great marketing are the same. Each business has its own nuances and unique language, but your colleagues can help you become acclimated to them. More often I see the opposite problem: Companies write job descriptions so narrowly that they exclude people from other industries they really should take a chance on.
Q: At which company did you have the biggest success as CMO?
A: It’s hard to name one, because each represented different business, brand and cultural challenges. You do very little by yourself, but I feel my team had a really positive impact at Allstate. The company evolved to be much more consumer-focused and aggressive in its marketing. It had great CEOs — Ed Liddy and Tom Wilson — who gave me the authority and flexibility to do things that hadn’t been done in the category previously. We also looked at the entire customer experience, from receiving a quote to getting a claim settled, and deconstructed it to understand the pain points for customers. Then we systematically addressed those areas and improved their experience. I’m also proud of the global services infrastructure we created at MasterCard and the “Priceless” campaign we did there. Coke has always been a marketing machine, so I’m very proud of the talent we brought in to sustain its greatness and pivot to a digital world.
Q: What’s your biggest challenge as CMO at Subway?
A: We need to transform the business, brand and culture. It’s a private company, held by two families, with nearly 45,000 restaurants in 112 countries, but it lacks the infrastructure for a business of that size and complexity. In many ways it’s still run like a small family business, which has its pluses and minuses. I’m in awe of what Subway has accomplished in the past 50 years — it’s the world’s greatest franchising machine! I’m helping its leadership think about how to structure the enterprise for growth and what the strategy should be in different markets. It’s very different from the challenges at Coke or Allstate, and in many ways it’s the biggest business challenge of my career — exhilarating and daunting at the same time.
Q: What advice do you give to young marketers who aspire to become CMOs?
A: First, get as much experience as you can in different functional areas. Within marketing, that includes communications, social media, design, operational or commercial marketing and brand building. But don’t live just in the marketing function; try to spend time in IT, business development or sales. Second, gain some global experience, whether it’s by living, working or studying abroad. Third, try to get experience in different industries. I was really fortunate: My first job out of business school was in strategic planning at Mobil Oil, and it gave me a very broad view of how a large global enterprise operates, which was a solid foundation. In general, aim to have rich experiences, because that creates a tapestry that will serve you well.
(Daniel McGinn is a senior editor at Harvard Business Review and the author of “Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed.”)
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