What does the modern CMO look like?
This job of a marketer can no longer be the narrow work of promotion. It's something bigger and broader.
The modern CMO is really a CXO—a chief experience officer—orchestrating the connection between marketing and experience, product and technology, consumer perception and reality. It's not just the job of making promises. It's the work of making sure a company delivers on them. It's not only spinning stories. It's making sure they're real. This new function has a hefty role: uniting siloes, delighting the consumer, and driving revenue growth while at the same time modernizing the tools to do that successfully. And re-thinking the whole system all the time.
To pull this off, we have to redefine what marketing means across talent, organizational orientation, capabilities, culture and ways of operating. The new CMO or CXO is above all a CSO (chief curiosity officer) and change agent, though one that never forgets the one constant: our shared humanity.
A Brief Personal History Of Marketing*
When I was a child, we had one big black and white TV in our house. It was in the basement. Lying on our orange shag carpet or lounging in a leaky** yellow beanbag, my brother and I would fight over what to watch, even though there were only four channels.
This was the era of mass media that started decades before I was born and spanned the entirety of my youth. From Mad Men to the Reagan era, marketers had some modicum of control. There were limited channels to reach consumers, and the people on the other end of all that promotion couldn't skip the ads or turn to devices which didn't yet exist. Marketers could interrupt anything—viewing, listening, reading—to sell what was often average stuff to average people.
Things started to change when I joined the workforce. I started my career as a journalist, in the waning days of the media-industrial complex. I had a front row seat to the fragmentation of consumer attention. As TiVo and the Internet began to shift everything, I went on to become a marketer in this new digital world, where anyone could have a platform for personal expression, channels and choices exploded, and marketers found themselves adjusting from demanding attention through interruption to having to earn it through engagement.
Mass marketing was giving way to masses of marketers, a group that included consumers themselves. The amplified word of mouth of online ratings and reviews and platforms like eBay were changing everything. As the marketing guru Seth Godin has said, "The Internet was the first major medium that was not built to make advertisers happy."
The marketing professor Scott Galloway says we're now in a post-brand era driven by the fall of broadcast media trumpeting mediocre products and the rise of "weapons of mass diligence," meaning ratings and reviews. The experiences that consumers have with a company and product are what matters, and they are directly and widely amplified in a way that has shifted the balance of power in shaping brand perception toward the consumer. Galloway suggests things have changed so much that brand marketing has been rendered irrelevant.
On the other hand, some marketers argue that marketing has always been about product, experience, and word of mouth, and great brands are built on products that at the very least satisfy. They point out that mass marketing still has its place in driving awareness and consideration, and brand remains a critical heuristic for consumers choosing a product.
What's indisputable is that marketing is far more complex—and interesting—than it's ever been.
*The history of marketing goes back much further than this, of course. I recently learned that one of the oldest known marketing relics is a copper printing plate from the inventive Song dynasty of ancient China. The template for advertising Jinan Liu's Fine Needle Shop features a logo—a white rabbit holding a supersize sewing needle—and a value proposition: "We buy high quality steel rods and make fine quality needles, to be ready for use at home in no time."
Discovering that white rabbit led me down an Internet hole worthy of another white rabbit, the Alice in Wonderland kind, tracing ancient marketing and advertisements through Indian rock drawings, bamboo flute jingles, and Pompeiian mosaics of fish sauce bottles.
You can endlessly argue over where it all began, but marketing has been around for ages. For most of its history, it's been the business of making promises to build a brand. This has involved telling a story to consumers, predominantly through advertising, to shape their perceptions about a product through the few channels everyone consumed.
Here's what I think has stayed the same, all the way back to that needle-wielding white rabbit: great brands are built on products that deliver value, and marketing (along with its subset of advertising) works best when every experience with a brand is a great one. Even back in ancient China, Jinan Liu couldn't run a business for long if the shop's needles were useless. As the marketing guru Seth Godin says, "You can't fool all the people, not even most of the time. People, once unfooled, talk about the experience."
Here's what has changed: for consumers, marketing, product experience, and servicing are thoroughly intertwined and their opinion about this set of touchpoints is amplified to a historic degree in this digital age. Everything must work together better than ever to build a great brand and drive growth and revenue. When they don't, the world will hear about it, thanks to the digital age.
**It was leaky because we once had a babysitter who inexplicably cut little slits in the vinyl, causing the plastic beads to fall out bit by bit. The same babysitter sprayed a fire extinguisher all over our deck after my brother and I were asleep. I'm not sure where my parents found that guy, but they would have benefited from childcare ratings and reviews back then.
The Modern CMO
This job of a marketer can no longer be the narrow work of promotion. It's something bigger and broader. The savvy modern CMO is really a CXO—a chief experience officer—orchestrating the connection between marketing and experience, product and technology, consumer perception and reality. It's not just the job of making promises. It's the work of making sure a company delivers on them. It's not only spinning stories. It's making sure they're real.
This new function has a hefty role: uniting siloes, delighting the consumer, and driving revenue growth while at the same time modernizing the tools to do that successfully. And re-thinking the whole system all the time. In this way, the CMO/CXOs of the world have a third title: Chief Curiosity Officer. They never stop questioning what consumers need and want and testing what works best with which segments of people across channels and time, and they keep updating data, analytics, and marketing technology to keep pace with the times.
I would argue there's never been a better time to be a marketer, because this role has so much potential to make companies successful and to make consumers happy. And we have the means to do it. The digital era has disrupted everything, but it also unleashed data that helps us detect what people want and when they want it, and the technology to act on that knowledge.
To pull this off, we have to redefine what marketing means across talent, organizational orientation, capabilities, culture, and ways of operating. The new CMO or CXO and CSO (Chief Curiosity Officer) wears many hats. The chief among them is a change agent, though one who never forgets the one constant: our shared humanity.
The Talent Magnet: A New Kind Of Team
I'm going to start with people, because great marketing hinges on the right kind of talent.
Too many marketing teams lack the diversity required to connect with consumers in complete, creative and innovative ways. This includes diversity of discipline, diversity of thought, diversity of gender, and diversity of ethnicity. A great team also includes a variety of subject matter experts along with systems level thinkers.
That's because modern marketing involves building an experiential ecosystem across marketing, product and servicing, digital and physical, and a great ecosystem can't be built inside an echo chamber of like-minded people. Sameness narrows thinking and creates blind spots. We need to include on our teams people with different skills and perspectives, listen to them, and embrace challenges to orthodoxy.
This starts with recognizing when our teams are too homogenous. This is very hard to do, because a lack of diversity tends to promote agreement and the illusion of being in a bubble of brilliance. We have to ask ourselves: Do we have great team dynamics or is that sameness? Do we have the smartest people or are we all just telling each other that? Is our strong culture a form of organized arrogance? What happens when it encounters different ways of speaking, thinking and working?
Diverse teams are more complex, less comfortable, and prone to conflict. They also do better marketing.
Another key talent need is leaders who have exceptionally strong influence skills, because the modern CMO has to be part of a virtual team that likely extends beyond marketing's span of control. That brings us to the next point—the modern CMO must orchestrate, not just direct.
The Architect: Re-Orienting The Organization
At the core of modern marketing is the notion of working backward from the customer. That has a variety of dimensions: grounding in customer empathy and understanding, developing insights based on consumer need states, developing great experiences across the customer life cycle, and constantly testing and evolving what we deliver to different segments with a strong data and analytics engine.
The problem is, most companies or organizations are structured around job types rather than consumer states. Many don't have a full map of the consumer journey or the universe of touchpoints across functional silos. Some even lack a comprehensive view of the dollars spent to engage consumers across the pieces and parts of the system.
We have to create that picture and then organize around it virtually. This doesn't require a massive organizational restructuring, though that kind of enterprise change would be powerful. It does require a combined view and a common purpose of aligning the promises the company makes with the delivery of that value, with a collective aim of growing it over time. Shared incentives can go a long way to making this happen.
In this way, marketers have evolved from brand evangelists to brand architects. That shift requires exceedingly strong influence skills, because while we can see and attempt to orchestrate the big picture, we almost certainly don't control it.
The Technologist: A New Set Of Capabilities
Given today's scarcity and fragmentation of human attention, we must be relevant, proactive, and personalized in our marketing, products, experiences, and servicing. This requires massive amounts of accessible data, the ability to act upon it, and the means to constantly test what works best with which consumers. Fortunately, thanks to more computing power and better algorithms—as well as machine learning—that is now possible. As the technological visionary Kevin Kelly has said, "The business plans of the next 10,000 startups are easy to forecast: Take X and add AI."
One of the reasons it's never been a better time to be a marketer is the marketing technology tools at hand. We have the means to build an always-learning, ever-improving engine that delivers more relevant marketing and better experiences all the time, thanks to constant, high velocity creative testing within segments, across channels, and over time. And we can measure how we're doing better than ever, at every touchpoint and collectively with marketing mix modeling and multi-touch attribution.
The modern CMO works very closely with technology and data science teams as well as product and servicing teams to make this possible across the brand ecosystem.
The Ethicist: Avoiding The Creepy And Honoring Privacy
This era of big data and AI is exciting, but the modern marketer has a balance to strike. Using data the right way enables us to be relevant to consumers, with an appropriate degree of personalization. Using too much data or opaque algorithms the wrong way is creepy, and in many industries, illegal.
We have to assess what data is okay to use, collect, store, act upon, or sell not only according to the constantly evolving regulations around consumer privacy but also in terms of our own ethics and values. The question should not only be what is permissible but also what is ethically unassailable.
Would you be comfortable explaining the data and AI choices you're making to someone you deeply respect, when their privacy is at stake? If the answer is no, it's time to reconsider.
The Empath: Humanity Never Goes Out Of Style
This post talks about how much is changing in marketing. But one thing that stays constant is that we are engaging with human beings, and we can't forget that.
It's worth remembering that in this digital era when we're more connected than ever, many people paradoxically feel alone. We all crave a feeling of belonging, but technology isolates us if we feel like an inhuman number. First and foremost, a customer wants to be treated as a person. Are we making our customers feel seen, heard, and acknowledged? Are we delivering them value or are we wasting their time? Are we chasing their attention or earning it?
Customers need to trust we have their best interests at heart. We can't only be vying for their attention. We have to show up in their corner.
A big part of earning that trust is to be true to who we are as a brand. We should aim to enhance and not interrupt customers' lives. And we should base our relationships with customers on their needs and wants as much as our own.
We may be in a new era, but humans are much the same. So as you harness all the amazing tools at our disposal, we must put equal energy into harnessing our humanity when we connect to the very real people we serve.
The Chief Curiosity Officer: A Culture Of Cognitive Flexibility
When great brands fade, the cause of their demise is often the slow death of curiosity. Hubris sets in, and with it, a fossilized set of beliefs about what works. The best marketers are like scientists, engaged in the consistently humble work of testing and rethinking assumptions. The organizational psychologist Adam Grant has written, "As we sit with our beliefs, they tend to become more extreme and more entrenched. We favor feeling right over being right… [but] we need to develop the habit of forming our own second opinions."
We need to constantly reset our understanding of consumers, their context, their expectations, and their experiences with our brand. We must ask, what value are we delivering across touchpoints and throughout the consumer lifecycle and for the business? It's an agile way of thinking.
That questioning requires a culture of cognitive flexibility. We need our diverse teams to be able to re-think, re-test, reinvent. And to do that, we have to create both psychological safety and accountability.
Never stop being curious—and never stop cultivating an environment that encourages curiosity.
The work of the modern CMO is not easy. Practicing diversity and inclusion, bridging silos, breaking new ground and constantly calling into question what worked before—it's uncomfortable. But discomfort means we're doing this new job right. It's a sign we're well into the next era of marketing, and it's better to blaze that ground than be left behind.
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