Why CMO Troubles Start with the CEO
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What do you get when you combine a dash of academic rigor, a hint a marketing obsession (in the best way possible), a few critiques of modern CMO tendencies, and a live audience of some of the sharpest B2B marketers out there? That’d be this week’s episode of Renegade Thinkers Unite, with Kim Whitler, Assistant Professor of Business Administration at UVA’s Darden School of Business.
Host Drew Neisser and Kim cover quite a bit of ground on this one, drawing on Kim’s 250+ published Forbes Articles—including a comprehensive look at some CMO challenges, in The Trouble With CMOs, published in the Harvard Business Review—Drew’s 300+ CMO interviews, and the shared knowledge of 6 B2B marketing leaders weighing in. The conversation explores the often tenuous relationships with CMOs and CEOs, how those can be improved, the ideal type of CMO to lead an effective marketing team, how leadership can change consumer behavior, and much, much more. Given the expansive subject material, this episode will actually be broken into 2 parts—be on the lookout for part 2 next week, but for now, listen in to hear about some research-backed tactics every creative marketer needs to consider.
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Full Transcript: Drew Neisser in conversation with Kim Whitler, Part 1
Drew Neisser: Hey, it’s Drew, and I’ve got some surprising news. Being a CMO is hard, really hard, but I’ve got better news. My guest today in a two-part series is Kim Whitler, who is an expert on CMOs and the assistant professor of Business Administration at the Darden School of Business. Anyway, we had a long conversation, so I’ve broken it up into two episodes. Here is Part 1.
Drew Neisser: Hello, Renegade Thinkers! It’s an amazing time to be a marketer although it sure as heck isn’t getting easier. But that’s what makes it fun, right? Anyway, speaking of fun, we have a great show planned for you featuring Kimberly Whitler and a live audience of B2B CMOs who will get their chance to ask questions. Well, for those of you who don’t know her, Dr. Whitler—yes, she has a Ph.D. in Marketing from Indiana University and is currently the assistant professor of Business Administration at the Darden School of Business. Now, this is important. She is an ardent ACC hoops fan, specifically the Virginia Cavaliers, and more than happy to give me grief about my Blue Devils. We’ll be talking about that.
Perhaps more importantly, she’s written over 250 articles for Forbes, where you’ll find her challenging conventional wisdom at just about every turn. The same holds true for all the other places she’s published, including an oft-quoted piece in the Harvard Business Review called “Why CMOs Fail.” I met Kim several years ago at an IBM conference which we were both attending as CMO influencers and realized we shared common interests or maybe an obsession in the study of this unique role, although I’m the first to admit she brings more academic rigor to her research, some of which will get to this show. Now, since I don’t have an applause track, maybe the CMOs in the audience can bring a little welcome cheer to our guest, Kim Whitler. Come on.
Drew Neisser: Awesome. Well done, audience. Kim, welcome to the show.
Kim Whitler: Thank you so much. I’m really excited to be here with you, Drew, and with all the other CMOs.
Drew Neisser: Important question—I noticed the preseason ranking. Duke was edging the Wahoos. What do you think? What’s your prediction? Do you think the Wahoos will win the ACC this year?
Kim Whitler: I think this is going to be a very tough year for us. It’s going to be a rebuilding year for sure. We lost four of our starters last year. Kihei Clark is the remaining starter who’s coming back and if anybody watched the tournament, Kihei’s a fabulous, fabulous player. He’s about 5’9″, terrific point guard, but we have to fill in all the other positions and so I think it’s going to be a rebuild. It’s going to be a fun year. We’re going to meet a lot of new players and watch them grow up.
Drew Neisser: All right. Well, we, of course, wish you the best of luck unless we’re playing you.
Kim Whitler: I was going to say, I don’t need to wish Duke any luck. You guys always have it.
Drew Neisser: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, Virginia’s done very well. Just for those who don’t follow it, they’ve won these like two or three out of the last four times, so awesome team. Anyway, let’s get to our favorite topic of CMOs and talk about your pre-Darden experience. You were at P&G for a good stretch. What brand challenge did you enjoy the most while you were there?
Kim Whitler: What brand challenge? I have a particular affinity—I kind of split my P&G, almost nearly a decade, into three parts. The first part was working in the U.S. on brands like Tide, etc. The second part was working overseas in Eastern Europe, and then the third part was working on global strategy where I was working in personal cleansing. 50% of the business was in Asia and so I kind of had this U.S., European, Asian experience if you will. Part of what I loved was just learning about different consumers and trying to help create value for them. But the part of the job that I loved the most is the strategic positioning side of it.
It’s what ultimately I ended up designing my elective around here. I’m writing a book on it. It’s really, how do you create a positional advantage in the marketplace through science? A little bit of art, but a lot of science. I had a lot of passion in trying to figure out how to drive growth, not through price reductions or through gimmicks, but really trying to figure out how do we find the magic space in the marketplace that will unlock the potential of the business. It’s not really a challenge, it is a challenge, but it’s also the part of the job that excited me the most.
Drew Neisser: I hope we do talk more about strategy. I’m curious—when I was coming up in the business, in fact, I moved to New York specifically to work on packaged goods business because, at the time, if you were on the agency side, that was the place you could get the most training. I really have to say, my time on Listerine really informed a strategic foundation that I’d lived off of for several decades. Do you think it’s still true that packaged goods marketing is the training ground for future marketing stars?
Kim Whitler: This is a complicated question. It’s not an easy answer, but let me say the following. I did some research a few years ago because my MBA students were coming in saying, “If I want to be a C-level marketer, where should I go? What’s the best training?”
I thought it’s a great question, so I start looking for data. There wasn’t any, so I collaborated with an executive recruiting firm to go get data on this question. Specifically, what we did is we surveyed executive recruiters who place C-level marketers. So, we’re looking for people who conduct searches for C-level marketers and we asked a question around something like, you know, it was open-ended. “If you’re looking at resumes and you’re looking for somebody who’s had terrific training in marketing, what company would you go to?” Then, of course, we analyzed the data and the reality is—now this is a few years ago, I want to say maybe three years ago that we did this—CPG firms are still at the top. I’ll explain why. There are some retail firms there. Interestingly, no consulting firms. I found that interesting because we place a lot of consulting students out of Darden. I want to say, really no tech firms unless you want to consider, I think Amazon and Apple were on the list.
But that’s backward-looking. The first thing I would say is that that’s looking at people who were trained 20 and 30 years ago. That doesn’t tell us who’s getting training where today and how that helps propel them forward 20 to 30 years from now. If I had a daughter or son, and they said they want to be a CEO, a growth-oriented CEO, I would tell them, “Go to consulting out of undergrad. After grad school, probably go to CPG if you want to go through the growth side. Then I would go and switch industries and I would pop over to tech, I’d pop over to financial services, pop over to retailing. I’d go get multi-industry experience and add a different view of problems.” I would recommend that because it’d be a lower risk.
Let me explain a little bit, Drew, kind of why. The distinction is what marketers do in different industries or different companies, so in some companies, marketers create collateral. As one of my students, Jesse Wilkinson said, “They’re arts and crafts marketers.” Other companies, they drive strategy. They drive P&L and there’s everything in between. Because the role of marketing is so varied, what really matters is how the company treats and values marketing. Is it the driver of the business or is it a sales support function? Is it a collateral development staff function?
The answer to the question is, the role that you go into determines in part the type of training. But I think there are a lot of things changing. For example, B2B marketing, now it’s a really exciting time to be in it. They have tremendous responsibility according to my research. The challenge is still, in some cases, trying to get respect, but they oftentimes have broader scopes of responsibilities than their B2C counterparts. I do think tech is an exciting place to be for marketing. It’s changing dramatically. I think financial services and data-oriented companies are a spectacularly interesting place to be because of the nature of the data and the type of analysis that they can do. My answer is a little bit backward-looking. I think it’s going to morph over time. But the key is, do marketers learn how to be CEOs or do they learn how to support the functions that become CEOs?
Drew Neisser: That’s a really interesting part of this conversation. I love the fact that you highlighted B2B as an interesting place to be. Of course, are our live audience are all B2B CMOs and so it would be good to sort of zero in on it. You mentioned that B2B CMOs have a broad range of responsibilities, but they struggle to get respect. Let’s talk about that. What’s the issue?
Kim Whitler: When I was a CMO, GM, I wouldn’t give this, but now that I’ve been trained as an academic, I always have to provide the limitation. This is research I conducted, surveys that I did a few years ago where I’m looking at the role of the CMO and I’m trying to disaggregate it and understand why some are more successful than others, in large part due to things that are outside of their ability to control, due to things other than competency, so that we can help CEOs better construct CMO roles, better understand how to hire. We can help CMOs do a better job of finding the right fit. And what I did is I took the data and I split it between B2C CMOs, B2B, and I ignored a group that also were hybrid, that kind of were both. I wanted to look at those who are purely B2B versus those that were B2C. Then I looked at the number of responsibilities that they had, for example, the number and the degree. Did they have some degree of responsibility for pricing and product and digital and sales support, sales management, strategy, product, price distribution, all sorts of different things? Then I looked at the degree to which they had responsibility for it.
If you control for company size, what I found was that generally the B2B CMOs, from my vantage point, had much richer jobs. They were touching more aspects of the company. They had broader responsibility and engaged in a lot more enterprise-wide types of things. There is another question I asked that had to do a status—what’s your status relative to the CFO, CIO, and other C-level leaders? What I found is that generally, the B2C CMOs felt that they had better status than the B2B. Now, obviously, this is over a large data set. Any one B2B person might have greater status than any randomly selected B2C person, it’s just kind of an aggregate average. That then, to me, gave me, I think, tremendous insight into some of the challenges that B2B CMOs might have, which is that they have a larger mandate and the company does have to be involved in more things, but they’re in some ways challenged to get the type of support or status or respect that they need to help deliver on some of those responsibilities.
Drew Neisser: Interesting. All right. Well, we’re going to take a quick break, and then when we come back, I want to zero in on this balance. it sort of feels like a great responsibility, great opportunity, but there are some barriers, whether it’s CEO respect or other things that we can dive into. Stay with us.
Drew Neisser: We’re back. My guest is Kim Whitler, and we’ve been talking about CMOs, particularly B2B CMOs, and it’s amazing to me that they have all this responsibility but part of the challenge—and we know this in any CMO role—is that you don’t necessarily have control over the things that will really help you be successful. You’re expected to change the world, but you’re not necessarily given everything that you need. One of the things that we’ve talked about, Kim, is about the support of the CEO and having alignment on expectations. That seems to be a huge problem.
Kim Whitler: Yeah. I mean, I think it is. When I talk to different CMO groups, a lot of the frustration—this transcends all types of firms—is trying to figure out how to better manage the CEO. Again, in a separate set of research that I did with CMOs, I asked questions around the view that the CEO held of marketing, the value of marketing, the role of marketing. And there’s a lot of variance. Some CMOs are fortunate. They have CEOs who really support and value marketing and others don’t. Just like we know that it’s difficult to change consumer beliefs if you have a CEO who comes from a company or an industry where marketing was not valued and the role of marketing was—I keep coming back to what Jesse said—”arts and crafts” and all of a sudden he or she is now your boss. How do you change their mind?
This is exceptionally difficult. I worked with, at one point, a CFO—this is the first time it happened to me. Everybody that I’d worked with respected and valued marketing and at one point, a peer of mine, the CFO, was from Wharton and just fundamentally did not believe that marketing mattered. Not at all. Trying to find a way to either work through him, work with him, or work around him ended up taking up a tremendous amount of my time to try to navigate that one challenge. Ideally, if I could wave a magic wand, all CEOs would understand the importance and value of marketing and you guys wouldn’t have these challenges, but unfortunately, they exist.
Drew Neisser: Let me ask you this, then. If you’re looking for your next CMO job, clearly one of the questions that you would want to ask your CEO is, “Hey, do you value marketing?” and “What does that mean?” If you ask any CEO in an interview, “Do you value marketing?” of course they’re going to say yes. But what are the hints that suggest now they really don’t?
Kim Whitler: Here’s what I would do. First of all, I like the context, which is I’m interviewing for a job. One of the things I would do is definitely look above me. I wouldn’t look just at the CEO, I’d also look at the board. I found in my research that when you have a marketing experienced board member, it can really help facilitate both the status of marketing and the organization because they’re more likely to want the CMO to be at board meetings. That can be a good or bad thing, but they can help facilitate it.
They also can help champion marketing. I’ve done some research in this area, and generally, it benefits the CMO when they have some sort of advocate or champion at the board level. I’ll tell you a few mental models. In my research, what I found is I actually looked at the background of the CEOs and then the relationship with the strength of marketing in the firm. What I found is that, generally, ops CEOs tend to have the worst marketing organizations in terms of how we define marketing capability. They’re just associated with firms that aren’t typically very good at marketing.
Now, I can’t tell you whether that’s because ops CEOs don’t manage it very well or they just happen to be in charge of firms that have other strengths like, perhaps, operations and not marketing. But generally, one of the heads up I would look at is if somebody comes from an operations background and the reason is that it’s so different from marketing. They’re focused on driving bottom-line profitability, marketers are trying to figure out how to generate growth. It’s like two different sides of the world.
This is an average. Again, you can have very enlightened CEOs who have ops backgrounds. In my research, I found that finance background CEOs and marketing background CEOs almost looks similar. Some were really good and had very strong marketing and some are really bad. For me, one of the things I would look at is: what type of function do they come from? Conceptually, a marketing background CEO, if they come from a company that has historically had good marketing, will value marketing more. When I say marketing, I kind of use it generically to say marketing and sales, so part of what I look at is what companies have they worked for? In those companies and in those industries, what has been the view of marketing?
That’s the mental model in which they were raised, so if you start off and you work in a non-profit and marketing is really only a campaign messaging organization, and perhaps they never even did a lot of data or analytics, then the type of marketing that they know is much more limited than if they worked at a Pepsi and the marketer was expected to be the CEO. That experience space will affect what they believe a marketer should be if that makes sense
Drew Neisser: It does. This, by the way, has a huge impact on longevity as well. One of the interviews that I did was with Kathy Button Bell, who’s got 21 years as the CMO at Emerson. Well, she’s had the same CEO for that period of time, which is incredibly unusual. What we’re essentially boiling it down to is a CMO can’t be successful if the CEO doesn’t give them the support they need. I think I could get a lot of head nods from the folks that are present listening, so that’s one. And it’s almost as if what we’re saying is, “If they aren’t, you probably can’t succeed,” period. What would it take for a CMO to succeed with a skeptical CEO?
Kim Whitler: Drew, you brought up a good point a minute ago about if you can ask directly if the CEO values marketing? If I can, before I jump into what would it take if the CEO is skeptical, I think you can ask some questions. You can try to ferret this out. In addition to looking at the background of the CEO and what types of organizations and industries they’ve been raised in, you can also ask things like, “What is the role of the CMO in this organization? What responsibilities are assigned to him or her? Does it align with expectations?” So if you say, “Kim,” I’ll use an example, “I want you to drive growth in this firm, but I don’t touch products, I don’t touch pricing, I don’t even have the analytics arm. I don’t have customer experience,” then there’s a huge disconnect between what they want you to do and the levers they’re willing to give you..
I had a CEO at one point say, “Now, Kim, if you think marketers are going to have full accountability or full responsibility for all the levers, you’re crazy.” I said, “I fully understand that. I absolutely get that. Marketers know that to some degree their job is an influence job. But on a scale of 0-100%, the farther up the scale you go, the more you put the marketer at risk, and the more you actually risk your own growth outcomes. What you’re saying is, “The person I expect to drive growth actually doesn’t have direct control of any of those levers.” That’s problematic. What I then did with the CEO is I said, “What if a board came to you and said, ‘I’m going to hold you accountable for firm performance, but we’re going to have the innovation arm report up to the board?’ Would you sign up for that?”
The CEO, of course, would never sign up for that because he or she wants complete control over all of the levers for which they’re accountable, so one of the things I would do is I would really look at the org chart. I’d try to understand what organizations are underneath marketing, what other organizations are lateral to me. I want to understand who controls what resources. I want to understand a little bit about managerial discretion and try to connect the dots between what the CEO says they want out of marketing and whether or not they’re actually giving you the ability to influence those things. That’s what I would do actually in the interview.
The other piece I talked about I’d do ahead of time to try to look at some of the experience base. And then you asked the question, “What would it take to address a skeptical CEO?” The simple answer here, because it’s going to vary by circumstance, by industry, by company, by CEO, what the skepticism is around. If the skepticism is around, “I’ve worked with the CMOs and they’ve never done a good job.” That’s a tough thing to deal with. Or “I worked in this company and marketing really wasn’t valued. I’m now in a situation where I’m trying to figure out how to drive growth. I have a burning platform and I don’t know who to turn to, if not the marketer, but yet I still have a little bit of skepticism.” Those two circumstances are quite different in terms of being able to address what’s causing the skepticism.
To me, it always comes back to getting really clear on what success looks like and making sure that I believe I have the ability to deliver success. A lot of this is around a strategic plan and a number of CMOs don’t have strategic plans, but, you know, I was trained at P&G—you always have a strategic plan for your business. You merchandise that plan with your peers and with your boss. You get alignment with your boss. And then, by the way, once you do that, you have a contract against which you can look at your performance at the end of the year.
Of note, in my research, I find that a lot of CMOs actually aren’t evaluated. They don’t get formal reviews. Well, in the absence of a formal review, how do you help drive alignment with the CEO in terms of how you did last year, what you’re trying to do in the next year, etc.? Part of addressing the skepticism, I think, is understanding what’s causing it and then I think it’s coming up with a little bit of a plan to address it. Part of this could include being clear about what your expectations are, and then part of it is earning credibility. If they come in skeptical, you have to kind of prove yourself and a way to do that is through financial metrics. That’s an easier way to do it, conceptually harder in practice.
Drew Neisser: Right. I want to get to those, but I have a couple of questions for the audience and just a show of hands. How many of you have a strategic plan in place that’s been approved by your CEO? That’s about 3 out of 5. Then, how many of you get annual performance reviews? Yeah, exactly. About 3.5 out of 5, it depends on the thing. That’s interesting. There’s an issue. It’s funny—I did what I self-aggrandize for a moment if I will.
The first chapter of my first book was for the first element of any CMO was setting expectations. It’s like, if you don’t get there, don’t bother reading the other 63 elements, because if you don’t have clear and aligned expectations with your boss, chances are you won’t succeed at any job. Forget about it, whether it’s a CMO or other job. But the other part of this is: how do you set expectations when you speak a different language than the CEO? I think that’s what we’re going to talk about when we get back, so stay with us.
Drew Neisser: We’re back. My guest is Kim Whitler. We have been talking about this gap between the CEO and the CMO. I saw in one of your notes, Kim, that folks call it this fuzzy, magical…
Kim Whitler: The arts and crafts.
Drew Neisser: Arts and crafts. Yeah. Marketing as arts and crafts. How does the CMO today, given that there’s a lot more marketing technology, there’s a lot more data available, translate the metrics that we look at as marketers and we’ve been trained to look at things like brand health, even things like awareness. Certainly, a CEO will say, “You can’t eat awareness.” This is what this is about. It’s about taking marketing metrics and turning them into business metrics, right?
Kim Whitler: Yes.
Drew Neisser: Okay, so how do we do that?
Kim Whitler: There are a couple of things I’d say out of the gate. One is that we have to understand that not everything can be measured. There’s always this assumption by some in, we’ll call it operations, where they can basically measure everything. That marketing should be, universally, everything should be able to be measured. I think part of it is to understand that not everything is measured. Again, every circumstance is a little different, but I start off with a fundamental question, which is, “Where does this fall on your strategic plan?”
I entered a role at one point. I was CMO. It was a GM/CMO, kind of a quasi hybrid role. When I got there, the measurement system was terrible. My number one strategic priority out of four was to set up the dashboards, the data, the tracking, to go figure all of that out. If I had not had it on my strategic plan, it would have been an afterthought and I would not have focused on it. Yet I knew that my success and that actually, frankly, the ability to run the business was predicated on having good data and having good insight. I didn’t have it there and I didn’t have any ability to connect what we were doing with the business, so I made it the number one strategic priority. It just had to be that important.
Drew Neisser: I wonder—for a lot of CMOs who say that this is an issue, where does it fall on their strategic plan? If you don’t prioritize it, you won’t invest the right time and the right resources in it. The second thing is, if you say, “This is a strategic priority, I have to figure this out,” then it comes down to what is it that you need to understand? What is it that you need to do? And what types of partners do you need to make this happen?
Kim Whitler: I will tell you that my ability to make progress on this issue at this company only happened because I had a terrific relationship with the CFO. He had a marketing mindset. I tended to come from more of a finance background. I kept saying to him, “I want to measure marketing” and you would have thought he wanted to fall out of his chair. “You want to measure marketing?” I said, “Yeah, I think we’re wasting too much money on TV ads, but I can’t prove it because I don’t have the data right now. Of course, that’s music to his ears, and then I said, “I want to reinvest and find ways that we can invest in those things that are really driving growth, but we need to go figure out how to measure things, look at attribution, modeling, etc.” so the two of us partnered. I could not have done it alone.
One of the challenges, when marketers say, “My CFO keeps saying, ‘I want you to do X, I want you to measure things,'” what I want my CMOs to do is to turn around to the CFO and say, “Well, at one level, this is so easy. I’d love to get your insight on how to do this.” If it’s so simple and it’s just that I’m incompetent—I’m exaggerating here—then help me. Show me how to do it if it’s so easy to do this. That’s my snarky answer.
The reality is that, in many cases, this is much more challenging than the type of measurement that other functions have to do, but if I had a difficult CFO, part of it would be saying, “Great, if it’s so simple, I invite you to come in. I’ll open up the books. We’ll work together. Let’s figure out how to make this happen.” The nice way to do it is if you have a great CFO is to say, “Hey, I really am trying to make marketing more accountable and I would love your collaboration, your help, to work on this because we’re connecting two languages. I need your help on your side. You need my help on my side. This is something we have to do together.”
And it’s even better if, together, you can convince a CEO that this is a strategic priority for the company. Now you can get some resources that you might need in different places to stitch the data together. You can make that happen faster. You may need consultants, you may need other resources outside of your purview, and if the CEO sees that you’re making this a strategic priority, that you’re partnering with the CFO and together you’re trying to make this happen, then it might actually facilitate moving faster. This isn’t easy and I recognize, look, I’ve had good and bad relationships with CFOs. At the point when I had a bad relationship, I would never have trusted him, to be honest, so that’s a whole separate problem. But in other circumstances, it’s a matter of partnering with them to try to figure out how to solve whatever problem you’re trying to solve.
Drew Neisser: I love that. I saw a lot of the heads nodding in the audience as you were saying that because some have done mentor programs where they reverse “you teach me finance, I’ll teach you marketing” has been one approach. But I want to say, it’s funny, I’m working on the chapter on metrics and in book number two and I just wrote this down, which was, you will often hear from a CEO or CFO, ‘I don’t want you spending a dime if you can’t measure it. If you can’t measure it, don’t do it.’
I think that’s the stupidest thing in the world because it overemphasizes the things that you can measure and underestimates the things that you can’t. We know inherently that awareness matters. Just ask any sales guy who goes and knocks on a door and the prospect says, “Where are you from again? I haven’t ever heard of you.” We’ve got heads nodding on that too and it’s interesting because we’ve got a range of brands that have a certain amount of awareness and some that don’t. Those that don’t desperately need awareness. Well, how do you build awareness? Often you have to do it in ways that are hard to measure.
Anyway, I’m off on a tangent. We have this challenge which is that we want to be accountable, but not everything that we do will be overtly and directly measurable. Let me add some more context for the B2B audience. Average sales are 12-14 months on an enterprise basis. Gartner is saying there are 11 different members of the buying committee right now, so you have an even more complex sell in this enterprise situation. It feels like you can measure some things. You can measure leads that come in the door and the quality of those things, but the overemphasis on measurement also leads to the CMOs who are very good at demand generation, which there’s a premium on right now, and not so good in some of these other areas like brand. Again, one might say “You can’t eat brands, so leave that alone. Just focus on demand generation.” Where are you right now when you think about it—if you’re a B2B CMO and you talked about quick wins, would you put all your energy in demand generation?
Kim Whitler: I have a little bit of a philosophy because I came into a couple of companies after CMOs got fired because they were doing brand stuff. The way I look at it is a little different. I look at short term versus long term impact. The one thing we know as marketers, if we’re really good at brand building—and I want to start by saying not all marketers are. We do a lot of things that actually don’t help support brand image growth over time, but if you’re really good at it, you know that it’s part of your responsibility. You have to do it. I always basically said this is below the line. This is stuff I will never get rewarded for. I do it because it’s the responsible thing. I should do it. If I don’t do it, nobody else will do it, but it’s below the line and I get credit for the short term results because that’s what my boss gets credit for.
What I did is I said, “Somebody’s got to do it, somebody has to think about it. But it’s not top of mind for the CFO, it’s not top of mind for the CEO in many cases, so I’ve got to make sure that I’m delivering the short term needs of the business at the same time that I’m protecting the long term health. This either/or thing, I will tell you and this will probably show my bias, in the research that I did, I asked the CMOs to identify if they had prudently analytical training, if they had predominantly creative training, or if there was somewhere in between. I then looked to the three distinct buckets. The hybrid CMOs, the creatives, and the analytical ones. I looked at those that were associated with the strongest marketing firms, and as you would expect, the hybrid CMOs are the strongest. Those who are ambidextrous, right brain/left brain, tend to be the strongest CMOs because they understand the quant side and they also understand the creative side.
But here’s a shocking thing to me. The second strongest CMOs right behind hybrids, barely a statistically significant difference, were the creative CMOs, and way down, I mean, there this huge gap between the creative CMOs and the quant CMOs. I did not believe the data, so that shows you my bias. I really felt like the quant CMOs would come in second, so I reran the data multiple times. I was like, this can’t be right. Then finally, when I accepted that the data was the data, I stepped back and said, “All right, what’s going on here?” I don’t have the data, I don’t have the research, but I have a hypothesis. I drew on my experience with students in the classroom and with my interviews with the CMOs. The more quantitative the CMOs that I’ve interviewed, the more they’re very dismissive in a bit of a haughty way about old fashioned creative CMOs. They look down on them. They don’t see the value in that skill. They look at it as an old fashioned, not important, not valued skill today.
In contrast, without mentioning names, I’ve interviewed a number of ad agency CMOs. They always have tremendous respect for the quant side, they make sure that they have people around them that shore up that potential deficiency, but they don’t look down on it. Then I think about my students in class, my poets and my quants— everybody knows the quant skills matter. It is unclear to me that the quants understand that strategic and conceptual thinking skills matter.
Drew Neisser: Interesting.
Kim Whitler: I start wondering. My hypothesis is that quant CMOs may have a bit of a hubris and a blind spot and they create teams of mini-mes because they value that skill so heavily and they don’t see the value in the other side, whereas the other folks are hit over the head daily with how important quant stuff is. So, they shore it up if they don’t have it. The way that I explain this to folks is that the quant side is telling you what to do. It helps give you insight into where you need to play, what you should do, etc. But the creative side helps you change consumer behavior. If you can’t change consumer behavior, you’re not going to have an effective marketing program, so you need both sides. The creatives know how to do that, but the quants and so forth have to help point them in the right direction. You need both.
Drew Neisser: That’s fascinating and, of course, that’s somewhat music to my ears. It’s the difference between how and why one could argue. Certainly, any CMO that I’ve talked to, if they ask, “How should we staff?” If they’re creative it’s: “Yeah. Make sure number two is a data person. You can’t survive without data.” But if you are a data person, I’ve seen this over and over again, particularly in Silicon Valley, you’re really good at quantitative demand gen, but not necessarily doing great work that really moves the business forward. They’re optimizing Google AdWords. It’s a different level of marketing. They are not changing the business. They are not impacting employee or customer understanding or appreciation of the business.
All right, so we have a bit of a surprise. This is just Part 1 of my interview with Kim Whitler. There actually is going to be a Part 2, and in Part 2, we will hear from the CMOs who you heard at the top of the show. They will get a chance to ask their questions and I think you’re really going to enjoy the second part, hopefully as much or even more as the first. So until next time, which won’t be very long, keep those Renegade Thinking Caps on and strong.
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