Why some tech CMO’s succeed and others don’t

There is an interesting article just been posted on the Forbes site once again noting that the most dangerous C suite title to carry is that of CMO. The article notes that the average tenure for a CMO is just 28 months compared with 38 months for CIO’s and at least four years for other C titles.

This got me thinking. Since we have dealt with literally hundreds of tech companies over the years, is the situation any different in our space and what might be effecting that.

Well we are different in some ways. Tech companies are always looking at innovation as a core business driver and culturally this infuses the marketing department with a feeling that they must always operate on the cutting edge of what is available as a communications vehicle. The hasty move away from print and the current obsession with social media are two classic examples of tech marketing trying to force the issue. But there’s more to it than that.

The more I consider this, the more I realize there are basically two forms of tech company marketing department. Stable and dysfunctional.

We have some incredibly good clients with staff who have been present for a considerable time and who one might even suggest are “stable”. This stability though exists in two completely different forms.

Firstly there is the version where marketing is a culturally defined function of sales support and where the marcom professionals place is to provide assistance to a sales program through somewhat monotonous but consistent marketing activities such as events management, collateral production, lead generation and product related marketing support which may sometimes include the odd media campaign. Stability is delivered by the simple fact that no one has time to think long term and indeed there is little compunction or will to do so. Budget management is only done by quarter and no sooner is one activity completed than the next is underway. The relentless treadmill turns and the marketing team, in order to be successful, must function as a well oiled machine.

In the second type of stable tech marcoms set up, the client usually operates within a relatively strict set of brand guidelines, creating campaigns within defined parameters and with a longer term corporate communications goal in mind. This works well, forcing the alignment of the different marketing components together and allows for more consistently integrated campaigns. Sure it has drawbacks – mostly in the stifling of the more radical creative ideas but even here, with some leeway and the right “adult supervision” things can still get interesting.

Both types of stability have drawbacks. The first tends to be staff burnout. Only certain types of marketing professionals accept relentless grind and one might argue that the real talent will tend to move on to organizations presenting more of a challenge and greater opportunity. This is perhaps unfair – some CMO’s simply enjoy building extremely functional departments and should be applauded for doing so.

In the second scenario the real problem is maintaining the consistency, especially in the short term. It typically requires other C level functions – mainly the CEO – to be very supportive of the brand vision and not feel inclined to tinker with it. If they buy in, then they will often move on to focus on other aspects of the business and allow the CMO the leeway to run with the vision and mould it over time. They must also accept, that while marketing should be measured, not all of marketing’s objectives can be simplified into a spread sheet. Carrying a brand vision into the market is as much about tone, feel and emotion as CPC and CPL’s.

So what makes a CMO bound to fail? Sadly dysfunctional tech marketing departments abound. In many cases the CMO is responsible themselves. They come in and immediately engage in radical overhaul without necessarily taking the time to leverage the good that exists. They “throw the baby out with the bathwater” and can actually inflict more harm than good – especially if they don’t stick around long enough to complete the task. This approach can be due to a radical difference in their vision as to what marketing goals should be or simply a wish to stamp their creative/message vision on the company at the expense of any historic work done. Again a CEO is probably behind much of this as they look for marketing to “reinvent itself” to help a struggling company position or diminishing bottom line.

However the most common problem I observe is often an organizational infrastructure that’s just designed to kill any CMO’s good intentions. Field marketing, corporate marketing, lead generation, events marketing, product marketing, web team, regional marketing, PR, etc, etc. Any company with this many departments, often with private agendas and rarely coordinated, is a disaster waiting to happen. If I meet any CMO who tells me “oh that’s not something I control” I know they are doing the job with both hands tied behind their back. It’s simply impossible to rally the troops if some think they are Indians and others think they are the cavalry. It never ceases to amaze me how often one marcoms function appears to be taking pleasure in screwing up the actions of another.

Oh the stories I could tell…….

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