The Future of the CMO in a Digital-First World

By Ash Wendt, President and Co-Founder of Cowen Partners

Consumer behavior has always changed in accordance with societal and economic trends. Recent years are no exception, ushering in what can best be described as the “blended” experience due to the rise of technology and digital advancements. As people return to stores in droves, they bring with them a new digital fluidity, using a combination of online and offline channels to make purchase decisions. The journey might start by browsing for products online but then move to the physical store for a closer look at the selection — to ultimately turn around and make the purchase digitally.

Mobile phones have only added to the complexity. According to a Consumer Product Content Benchmark survey, a growing contingent of shoppers now rely on their phones while shopping in stores. The majority (72%) use phones for price-comparison purposes, but then some check customer reviews (62%), read product descriptions (52%), and even conduct research on a brand’s reputation. It is a digital-first world, after all.

Many brands have struggled to keep up, trying to optimize their presence across various channels and integrate digital technology into all areas of business. Many have gone so far as to create a digital ecosystem in an effort to offer a seamless, personalized customer journey.

With a move to digital-first strategies and a greater emphasis on customer-centricity, companies had to change how they operate. Almost overnight, CMOs found themselves at the forefront of business transformation. It was inevitable that their role and responsibilities would evolve in response.

The Ever-Evolving Role of CMO

Navigating the change from simply marketing a product to keeping a watchful eye on every aspect of customer experience can be challenging, and it’s made even more difficult with the expectations now placed on today’s CMOs. There’s significant pressure to deliver quick wins and measurable ROI, which can be challenging in these changing market conditions. Most consumers are highly selective about what they buy and where they buy it, with one PwC survey finding that 69% plan to hold back on non-essential spending. In fact, 15% have cut it altogether.

The sheer number of channels now available only complicates matters. It can sometimes feel like delivering the right message to the right person at the right time is a losing battle. Social, affiliate, influencer, paid, organic, content, and referral, to name only a few, are all part of the equation. Coupled with the rapid pace of digital change, CMOs must be extremely agile and capable of pivoting strategies based on market trends, customer feedback, and more — and that’s all before the campaign launch.

Once a campaign starts rolling along, the work must begin on aggregating data from multiple channels, unlocking valuable insights, and leveraging it to support marketing strategies. In other words, data proficiency is a must. But that’s not all. Almost any marketing metric still needs to connect to any number of metrics within the company. The finance team doesn’t care about clickthrough, bounce, or engagement rates. They want to know how those numbers relate to their world. Therefore, showing the results everyone wants requires blending analytical skills and creative thinking to interpret data and make it understandable for leaders across the company.

It’s no wonder why CMO tenure is the shortest in the C-suite, with an average stay of just 40 months. That’s half the average tenure of CEOs, which clocks in at about 85 months.

The Next Generation of CMOs

The next generation of CMOs will need to be more than tech-savvy to succeed in this ever-evolving role. Advanced digital marketing skills, for one, will be critical. The same can be said for experience with data analytics and digital transformation. Technology will continue to shape more aspects of the customer experience, and a brand’s ability to identify when (and how) to deploy a new or emerging tool will determine its share of the wallet. Technology is now under the purview of CMOs, and some would argue that the best candidates will think not only like a CMO but also a CTO.

In addition to an acute understanding of technology, soft skills will be crucial to success. Given the pace of change in technology and digital tools, the next generation of CMOs should be curious and committed to continuous learning. They must also be adaptable and willing to experiment with emerging technologies and approaches. As CMOs continue to work across functions, emotional intelligence will also be valuable. Emotional intelligence can help CMOs build solid relationships and turn intent into action when leading a team through any number of changes.

The CMO role has become more challenging, and that won’t change anytime soon. It may even grow in complexity alongside consumers’ expectations — and those from the board. Taking the helm of the marketing department has never been for the faint of heart, but the opportunity to drive change and deliver growth is a unique position to be in. Not everyone in the C-suite can say as much.

About the Author

Ash Wendt is President and Co-Founder of Cowen Partners, where his extensive background in sales and executive recruiting has helped propel the firm to national prominence. Recognized for his disciplined, results-oriented approach, Ash excels in matching top talent with leading companies, earning him accolades and frequent mentions in The Wall Street Journal. Today, as the leader of the Sales and Marketing division, he continues to place high-caliber executives, driving growth and innovation for Cowen Partners’ diverse clientele.