Conversant in the C-suite

Most CMOs are familiar with the “language of the C-suite.” Tasked with more responsibility for the entire company, CMOs and marketers have learned that words that are appropriate to use with their peers and other marketers — clicks, views, opens, downloads — don’t work in the C-suite. That’s where being able to effectively communicate using words and phrases such as “profit and loss” (P&L), “return on investment” (ROI), and other finance-related lingo is the cost of entry.

Many CMOs have won a seat at the table because they learned to convey to upper management the value of marketing activities that are hard-to-impossible to measure and how to advocate for investments that are not easily justified in strict P&L terms.

However, not all CMOs have reached the advanced level, where all of an individual’s communication and interpersonal skills coalesce to build relationships with other members of the C-suite, the board of directors, and other decision-makers within the organization.

Collaboration is the key to being an effective CMO, says John Dillon, chief brand officer and SVP of marketing at Denny’s, adding, “The CMO’s role is never to take a hill alone and expect others to follow.” Believing that marketing’s role “is to bring the customer’s voice to life across the organization,” Dillon advises marketers to “actively listen and subsequently speak the language of other departments in solving the needs of consumers.”

For example, when the company was developing Denny’s On-Demand mobile and online ordering platform, “we didn’t treat it as a marketing idea,” Dillon says. “We treated it as an organization coming together to solve a consumer need, and a business opportunity.”

Jen Jones, SVP of corporate marketing at Cision, agrees. “Start by understanding what your peers in other departments are trying to accomplish and how their work supports the overall company’s goals,” she says. “By understanding the role of the other departments, you will start to see where marketing can assist and how you can work together towards a common goal.”

Break Down Old Silos, Cultivate New Relationships

Analysts from McKinsey recently completed research on C-suite executives throughout the globe and found a quantifiable link between CMOs who can build relationships within the C-suite and the growth of their organizations.

They started by categorizing CMOs into three “archetypes” — Friends, Loners, and Unifiers (see sidebar). Unifier CMOs were characterized as being 1.4 times more likely to have a mutually accountable relationship within the C-suite, 1.4 times more likely to have a clearly defined role in the eyes of their C-suite colleagues, and 1.3 times more likely to adopt the mindset of other C-suite executives. McKinsey researchers also found that high-growth companies are seven times more likely to have a Unifier CMO than a Loner.

Shar VanBoskirk, VP and principal analyst at Forrester Research, interviewed a group of CMOs in fall 2018. “I wanted to identify the competencies of great CMOs,” she says. “Several mentioned that they became successful by understanding and taking on other departments’ problems instead of waiting for everyone else to understand marketing.” She offered an example: “The HR department might be trying to figure out how to hire data-driven talent. If marketing is good at data analysis, [the two top executives] could tell a combined story to boost recruitment.”

Dillon says it’s crucial that marketers familiarize themselves with disparate parts of the organization. “While other executives might not entirely understand the value of marketing, you as a marketer can better understand the finance or operational needs of the company,” he says. “Your awareness and acknowledgment of others’ needs beyond your own allows for an open conversation and ultimately drives everyone toward the needs of the consumer.”

Noah Elkin, senior director analyst at Gartner, notes that collaboration between CMOs and other aspects of the business enables marketers to span communications — and provide C-level executives with a more holistic view of the organization. “As a marketer, you are in a privileged position to be a communicator and a bridge builder,” he says. “Being able to communicate marketing’s impact to other parts of the business is almost as important as delivering the results.”

Great Expectations

CMOs generally feel they have mastered the fundamentals of using C-suite language, especially financial terminology. Yet, communications problems persist because the CEO, CFO, and other C-suite members fail to understand that while marketers can collect and analyze data, they can’t establish a cause-and-effect between their efforts and revenue 100 percent of the time.

For the February 2019 edition of “The CMO Survey,” marketers were asked to reflect on the language of their companies’ C-suites and identify “marketing leadership activities they find challenging to implement on a regular basis.” The unequivocal top answer (64 percent) was “demonstrating the impact of marketing actions on financial outcomes.”

Similarly, Gartner’s “CMO Spend Survey 2018-2019” found that “proving the value of marketing to the enterprise remains a perennial challenge.” While 61 percent of CMOs surveyed cited ROI as “a key metric that informs the marketing strategy,” less than one-third of respondents “place ROI as one of their top five strategic key performance indicators (KPIs).”

Elkin observes that marketers are demonstrating they can move the needle for the business, and, as a result, the C-suite has developed greater expectations regarding what marketing can deliver. “Marketing has become more of an epicenter of responsibility and resources within many organizations, but that also means that there is more pressure on CMOs to demonstrate and prove results,” he says.

Denise Karkos, CMO at TD Ameritrade, could not have imagined 25 years ago that marketing efforts could be tied as directly to the bottom line as they can be today. “I like to say that 80 percent of our spend has an ROI, and we leverage very sophisticated techniques (digital attribution) to less sophisticated approaches (sponsorship engagement),” she says. However, there are still marketing activities that cannot be linked directly to ROI. “It’s more about the degree to which you measure ROI and at what confidence level,” she says.

In B2B, in which sales cycles are long and multiple decision-makers are involved, attribution is especially difficult. As Toni Clayton-Hine, CMO at Ernst & Young Americas, put it, “Because we are able to measure so much more, there’s an assumption that the contribution of every touch point can be calculated. That’s simply not the case.”

The contributions of marketing and sales are intertwined, “so having conversations about attribution becomes very important,” Clayton-Hine adds. “Because I came from sales, I can explain this by taking people through the process of closing a multimillion-dollar opportunity. I ask salespeople how long they’ve been working on the deal. Let’s say it’s 12 months. I ask, ‘How many times have you met and interacted with the client over 12 months?’ They’ll say, ‘Maybe a dozen or two dozen times.’ I ask which one of those times had the greatest impact on whether they closed that deal. They don’t know,” she says. “It’s the same with marketing. You need all of these touch points in order to move people through the sales process, through the funnel, through the client life cycle.”

Other CMOs add that despite the increasing sophistication of data analytics, marketers can ill-afford to give short shrift to the art inherent in marketing. “Determining the ROI of marketing and advertising campaigns has immensely improved,” Dillon says, “but I counsel marketers all the time to hold true to the art of marketing, to never lose sight of the importance of building unquantifiable emotional connections between consumers and brands.”


Boosting the Overall Value of Marketing

McKinsey partner Jason Heller and senior expert Biljana Cvetanovski conducted a series of surveys and interviews with C-suite executives from throughout the globe, including CMOs and other C-suite executives. Using that data, they grouped the CMOs into three categories: Friends, Loners, and Unifiers.

The smallest of the three groups, Unifiers (24 percent of the participants), are the very definition of fluent C-suite speakers, according to the report.

“These [Unifier] CMOs are masters at fostering cross-functional collaboration. They ensure that marketing has a clearly defined role in the eyes of C-suite peers; they adopt the language and mindset of other C-suite executives; and they articulate how marketing can help meet the C-suite’s needs,” the authors of the study write. “They have a seat at the table when critical decisions are made, have broad profit-and-loss responsibility, and are often involved in defining the company’s strategy. As a result, their budgets are more likely to be protected during a downturn, and they enjoy a 48 percent longer tenure.”

Almost half of CMOs (49 percent) qualify as Friends. “The Friend has one or two allies in the C-suite, often the CEO, but hasn’t been able to spread marketing’s agenda fully across the organization. Friend CMOs typically don’t have broad P&L responsibility or even much influence across the entirety of customer experience,” the report says. “They are also not as adept at speaking the language of the C-suite.”

Twenty-seven percent of CMOs fall into the Loner archetype. “Loners tend to focus on near-term activities like ad campaigns and social media,” the report’s authors write. “They are seen by CEOs as executors of brand stewardship, advertising, and PR, not as equal partners. They are more likely to implement strategy than develop it and often report that their CEO doesn’t understand or trust marketing.”

The following is republished with the permission of the Association of National Advertisers. Find this and similar articles on ANA Newsstand.

By Marie Griffin


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