Digital Eye


Finding tomorrow’s CMO

The CMO’s road ahead

Executive recruiters who specialize in C-suite searches explore the changing role of the CMO since the beginning of the pandemic and contemplate the skills that will likely drive the future.

The changing role of the CMO

The global upheaval that has dominated the business environment since 2020 has forever altered the role of top marketers. In the 26th edition of Deloitte’s CMO Survey, which collected the opinions of nearly 3,000 top marketers at for-profit US companies, 72% of marketing leaders said their role had increased in importance during the last year.

For the executive recruiters who do the selection and vetting for top marketing talent, this moment feels like nothing less than a revolution for the profession. They see opportunity for marketers to consolidate their role as growth-focused, branding-building leaders. Others predict that powerful innovations such as AI may transform recruiting. Despite these changes, companies will continue to clamor for talent that understands how emotional connection with customers builds brand value. What’s more, as a growing share of marketers believes it’s important that companies take a position on key social issues, candidates should balance transparency and authenticity with activities that remain vital parts of the job, such as sales enablement.

A breakthrough moment for leadership

Increasingly, marketers have less time to land on a message and reach their audience before something else grabs their attention. One of the most evident changes that has transformed the role of the CMO in the post-pandemic is digital acceleration. Both the velocity and nature of customer interactions have changed dramatically over the past year, often through on-demand experiences that became the norm as people interacted through screens from home.

While digital acceleration preceded the pandemic and got a boost after the crisis, many CMOs who weren’t fully immersed in this beforehand found themselves squarely in the hot seat as health and social crises emerged.

“With the rapid pace of digital transformation, marketers will need to continue to move quickly and ensure their customer interactions from all touchpoints are positive, as you are only as good as your last experience with your customers,” says Zach Peikon, a principal at Korn Ferry.

Zach Peikon
Zach Peikon, principal, Korn Ferry

Representation, roles, and influence

Peers in the C-suite also expect CMOs to deliver by demonstrating how marketing drives growth and contributes to strategic decisions. But many CMOs express a lack of confidence in their own abilities. A Deloitte study of 575 Fortune 500 executives reveals that only 5% of CMO respondents consider themselves high performers in their ability to drive strategic decision-making, contribute to the overall direction of the business, and garner support from peers for their initiatives. This contrasts with 55% of CEOs who consider themselves high performers.

The study shows those misgivings might be unwarranted, as C-suite executives rate CMOs more favorably than the marketing leaders themselves do. Kristin Deutmeyer, a partner with Heidrick & Struggles, offers some context, saying CMOs should layer technology know-how on top of the customer connection skills that became so critical during the pandemic.

“CMOs provided connection to consumers in many ways, including very practical ways like delivering goods and services, but they also provided much-needed emotional connection to brands,” Deutmeyer says. “Now, the ability to partner with technology and tie brand, performance marketing, and customer experience together is key. If one of these isn’t in their job description today, then they need to seek out projects outside their daily role that leverage technology.”

Adds Dana Dimitri, a consultant at Russell Reynolds: “CMOs need to lean into technology. Working closely with the CIO and CTO, the CMO can be fully engaged with activating the customer and how they can grow the business using technology.”

Kristin Deutmeyery
Kristin Deutmeyer, partner, Heidrick & Struggles
Dana Dimitri
Dana Dimitri, consultant, Russell Reynolds

Transformational teams

Another area that has fallen unexpectedly to CMOs is internal culture-building, says Deb Op den Kamp, a consultant with Spencer Stuart. While CMOs may not always think about employee marketing—assigning this work to HR instead—more organizations have been looking to CMOs since the onset of the pandemic for guidance on helping teams collaborate more effectively.

Building a cohesive team used to mean that marketers were rotated through an array of activities within the discipline, from analytics to field marketing to demand generation. Today, building a transformational team is a lot like finding a specialist in medicine, Peikon asserts. “If you need a heart doctor, you go to the cardiologist, or when you need your hearing checked, you see an audiologist,” Peikon says. “Marketing has become very specialized, especially in areas such as analytics, digital, or brand.”

The pandemic has also heightened the need for marketing teams to have a deeper understanding of the technology that facilitates customer connection for offerings such as expanded online shopping and curbside pickup.

“Not only is it the technology, but CMOs today need to have cross-functional understanding,” Dimitri says. “A key issue is figuring out ways to connect with the customer and knowing the technology behind that to make it happen.”

Deb Op den Kamp
Deb Op den Kamp, consultant, Spencer Stuart

A hiring revolution

If the CMO’s job since the start of the pandemic has been characterized by rapid acceleration, so has the hiring process. Before widespread remote work became the norm, it was unheard of to consider hiring a senior-level executive to join an organization and manage hundreds of employees without having met the candidate. But employers have had more than a year to see how remote work scenarios have evolved. As a result, the days of multiday, in-person interviews almost certainly seem numbered. In their place are virtual interviews with the option of a final, in-person meeting to sign the deal.

“We are doing a lot more leadership assessments virtually, we’re finding them effective, and we hope that it will stick. Despite the challenges of the pandemic, our research showed us CMO moves rose 25% across North America in 2020, with 523 publicly disclosed appointments, up from 420 in 2019,” says Dimitri.

Peikon believes the best companies will continue to offer geographic flexibility. Rather than a 9-to-5 assignment, he says, “what is more important is the flexibility to be anywhere while still being connected to your organization and its culture.”

Machine and human help for talent acquisition

One trend recruiters are watching in the hopes that it helps eliminate bias in the screening process is AI-assisted recruiting. “Many companies say they want to eradicate that bias in recruitment,” Op den Kamp says. “There are many ways to do this, ranging from unconscious bias training; to ensuring the company has a diverse interview panel; to using AI in the screening stages for junior roles to avoid letting names, graduation dates, or educational institutions interfere with the assessment of a candidate’s capabilities.”

Recruiters also note the challenges of onboarding new talent in a largely remote environment; cultural fit is more challenging to achieve when you can’t walk the halls or have spontaneous interactions with colleagues.

“Onboarding is a huge opportunity for companies to help differentiate and help set their people up for success,” says Peikon.

Pulse on public opinion

The pandemic year has pushed marketers to definitively state whether their brands share their customers’ values. In the CMO Survey, more marketers now say it’s suitable for companies to take a position on politically charged issues, with a nearly 50% increase over the past year, reaching 27.7%. That’s the highest level in survey history. What’s more, 59% of marketers in our survey say they’ve made significant efforts to support or change social issues in the past year. Within active recruitment processes, Dimitri says her firm reports that clients are prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion as a core requirement for their hiring processes.

Op den Kamp says the intensifying focus on systemic bias and unequal treatment in companies and institutions has forced CMOs and brands into conversations even if many weren’t ready to have them. Many CMOs spent the year figuring out the right message, voice, and tone for their brands in a rapidly changing social landscape. The most successful CMOs found their authenticity by driving alignment between messaging and actions, both internally and externally.

CMO skills: The road ahead

The shifting contours of marketing priorities to meet social, digital, and political demands have not affected the fundamentals of the old-fashioned job search, recruiters say.

“The most successful marketers are able to tell their own story in a succinct way with real examples, using data,” Op den Kamp says. “Particularly in this environment, people who have examples of leading through ambiguity fare particularly well. They can talk about how they have tossed out their prior playbook and reinvented their approach.”

Op den Kamp predicts data and analytics skills will continue to be top capabilities in the searches Spencer Stuart manages. “I tell marketers that this is a great time to be building a relationship with your chief data officer,” she says. “Or with all the time you’ve saved commuting, it might be a good time to take a class in machine learning so you can understand where the future is going.”

Marketers’ overall economic optimism has surpassed mid-pandemic and pre-pandemic levels, according to the CMO Survey. Op den Kamp says she’s enthusiastic about the future of the CMO whose passion lies in being a champion for brands.

“There seems to be a lot more demand for brand marketers than we have seen in a long time, across industries,” Op den Kamp says. “My hypothesis is that we have spent all this time in isolation, and companies are really looking to reconnect with consumers. Most often, the way they do that is through a brand, establishing emotional connections.”

Dimitri says that, in addition to proven experience as customer-driven and digital leaders, storytelling skills will still take candidates a long way, while Deutmeyer says those skills will come in handy for the pent-up demand for top talent. In our CMO Survey, 7.6% of respondents planned increases for 2021, compared with a projected a hiring decrease of 3.5% for the year in June 2020.

According to Deutmeyer: “There’s a lot of competition for top talent, so clients will need to be decisive, attractive, and swift.”

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This article is part of an ongoing series of interviews with marketing executives. The executives’ participation in this article are solely for educational purposes based on their knowledge of the subject, and the views expressed by them are solely their own. This article should not be deemed or construed to be for the purpose of soliciting business for any of the companies mentioned, nor does Deloitte advocate or endorse the services or products provided by these companies.

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