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Why do chief marketing officers have a short shelf life?

Last updated on: May 19, 2009 15:38 IST

It's no secret that the CMO position is perhaps the least secure job in top management, with a turnover rate that's  faster than major league managers but slower than that among quick service restaurant employees.

According to Greg Welch, who launched Spencer Stuart's marketing practice and now heads the firm's global consumer  goods and services business, the average CMO tenure has grown to just over 28 months in 2008, up four months since Welch started measuring CMO tenure in 2004. The average CIO lasts 38 months, and no other c-level executive checks in under 46.

There are exceptions to the rule, such as Mike Haaf of Food Lion and Michael Francis of Target, but there's no denying the math. Today less than one-third of all CMOs hold the position for less than three years -- bad news for anyone who cares about marketing.

The reason for the CMO's short tenure is the "Marketer's Dilemma." That is, focus on today's results, do the same thing that always worked and expect to get passed by aggressive competition. Focus too much on long-term innovation and you miss today's results.

Try some big innovations that fail, and you lose your credibility. While effective marketing isn't rocket science, it's quite a balancing act to hit the sweet spot that delivers today's results while building the brand for the long term. And it's all played out in public.

Is marketing really different than a company's other functions? I say yes. Like every other part of a company, marketing needs to innovate, but that innovation occurs publicly. So, just like major league managers, a CMO's game plan and tactical brilliance are on display every day.

That's part of the job and comes with managing a large budget. What makes it difficult is that, just like managing a baseball team, most people think that they're pretty good at it. Neighbors, family and folks in your own company are consumers with opinions they are often eager to share.

It's unusual that anyone would spend the weekend studying Asian supply chains and then come in to chat about it on  Monday. You're unlikely to overhear someone saying "Hey CIO, how about explaining our data architecture this morning and then we can bop over to finance and review our cash management strategy?" But with marketing, just like  sports, everyone can feel like an expert.

It usually starts with "Why don't we...?" or the dreaded GMOOT--shorthand for "Get Me One of Those. . ." The demand in question could be anything from Amazon's predictive models to Apple's ad campaigns. The converse sounds like "Television is a total waste. . ." or "I get all this direct mail I never read. . ." or "My spouse thinks. . . " With all of those opinions, it's no surprise that a lot of people think they can do better. How hard can it be to make good advertising, optimize promotional spending to drive traffic and cut all of the waste?

Just like a sports team, the infrastructure, brand history and tolerance for risk-taking are important elements in  a marketer's success or failure. A good CMO, like a good sports manager, will be able to improve today while building the capability to win for the long run. The product or the value proposition may be in decline (like General Motors or the Oakland Raiders), the infrastructure may not work (try doing a predictive model without an integrated database), or the brand may have no consumer interest or cache.

But to make consumers notice, it's important to do something different and innovative. That means taking more risk than just increasing Internet marketing spending by 5 per cent.

Turnover is inevitable, and I'm not arguing against change when it's appropriate. But just like a sports team manager, be sure to look at the real issue before concluding that hiring a new marketing leader is the answer.

Changing managers every two years is rarely the path to a sports championship, and it's not the way to great marketing either.

Mike Linton was, until recently, CMO at eBay, Previously, he was the first CMO at Best Buy. He joined the electronics retailer in 1999 from James River Corp., where he worked as a vice president and general manager. Linton started his career in brand management at Procter & Gamble.

Mike Linton, Forbes
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