On June 5, 2019, the Wall Street Journal covered a fascinating study from Spencer Stuart, who reported the median tenure for a top 100 CMO had dropped to 27½ months. A little over two years. Prior to that, the CMO of Lyft resigned after seven months. A few days after the article was published, Uber announced its CMO had departed after only eight months.
From the day you start, the clock is ticking, whether you’re in a huge conglomerate or a tiny startup. You have to prove your worth, drive sales, and overcome any hurdles your predecessors created. No one else in your company faces more pressure to perform, receives less empathy, or works with such a difficult tool set.
Why 27 months isn’t enough
In a top 100 advertising company, CMOs need a minimum of 3-4 years to make a lasting change and impact. And the larger the company or the more ingrained its issues, the longer it takes.
In companies that operate at this scale, setting strategy well takes six months: three to set the strategy, and three to iron out the budgets. (These aren’t made-up numbers; I see them every day with my clients.)
Then, because finance often doesn’t respect marketing, they disagree on budgeting for weeks, or worse, months.
If it’s a tech company, engineering usually has an opinion. Another few months are lost debating various approaches.
Hiring and training new members of a marketing team can take another 6-12 months. Hopefully, at the same time, you can fix the data and website issues and start to turn the ship. But if not, you’ll need even more time.
Once that’s done, you need another year to take measurements and adjust course.
That’s three years at a minimum!
May the odds be ever in your favor
On top of all of this, most people don’t understand marketing. So when the business succeeds, they’ll give all the credit to the product, to management, to basically anyone but you. If it fails, though, you’re the first one to get the blame.
It’s no different in small companies. Every tech startup in the Valley wants to be a unicorn. Not everybody gets to be one. Runner-up: getting acquired by Google for $20 million. This tends to work out great for engineers, who get “acquihired;” they can bag a nice bonus and keep going. Marketers, on the other hand, get, as I like to call it, “acquifired.” The company that just bought yours already has a marketing department, and they only need so many people. Odds are good you won’t be one of them.
Here’s a paddle; now steer this leaking supertanker
After nearly 20 years of working with top marketers in Silicon Valley, I’ve observed that when a CMO doesn’t last long in a company, it’s because of two factors working against each other:
1. CMOs are optimistic people. They are about growth and they are confident in their abilities to change organizations.
2. CEOs and boards are more guarded. They rarely show an organization’s true issues during the hiring process — if indeed they’re aware of them.
The larger the company, the bigger the problem, because time and scale have ensured two more confounding factors:
3. Marketing data is siloed and usually inaccessible.
4. Marketing materials, especially websites, are often a mishmash of past acquisitions with a heap of integration issues.
When a company has problems, marketing is usually the most obvious place they’ll surface. Many CEOs don’t realize that problems in marketing may be only the symptom of a bone-deep structural issue, so they treat the symptoms, and not the disease. The hypergrowth of spending on social media in recent years has only skimmed over the deeper organizational issues. But since you, the optimistic new CMO, aren’t aware of those issues yet, you can easily end up over-promising and under-delivering, which ensures your tenure will be short.
Ask these questions in your interview
One way to ensure your own success is to avoid committing to goals until you fully understand the problems in front of you. You may already be asking these questions, but now consider the answers in light of how it might affect your tenure as CMO:
Why are you hiring for this role now? The previous CMO probably didn’t leave because everything was great. When you ask why they’re looking for a new CMO, do they talk about how bad your predecessor was? You might be tempted to think how much better you will be than they were, and that only you can save this company. You might be excited about the brand, the pay package, or the prestige. But beware: These are ego traps. Ask the company why they’re not promoting from within, and you’ll learn how they view your direct reports and your team.
What’s the budget for marketing? How was it set? In smaller companies, you’re trying to get a feel for how important marketing really is to them, no matter what flowery words they use. If they’re doing $100 million in revenue and only have a $100k budget, you’ll want to ask questions about what they think a more realistic number might be. You can still take the job, but isn’t it better to go in knowing what you’re facing?
Who is your target customer? If marketing has been done right so far, the hiring committee and your direct reports should be able to articulate who the customers are. If you get mixed messages, that’s a red flag that more work has to be done internally to get alignment — especially if finance, engineering, and/or sales aren’t on the same page.
What sources of customers are working best, and why? Good marketing should educate its leadership on how its money is being spent. If disdain, confusion, ignorance, or worse, frustration is expressed, that’s another hurdle you’ll need to overcome before the company can move forward. Lots of testing may be required.
If you get the job, what would you be expected to work on first? Often, founders and CEOs have a pretty good sense of what the issues are, either in a channel they want to focus on or an internal situation they want to resolve. Hearing the answer to this question, especially the tone and word choice around it, will signal a lot of potential unresolved conflict. A shrug and “that’s your job, what do you think?” is a sign your CEO may not be engaged with marketing as much as you might like. It could also be a test, so it’s fine to play along. You may indicate that you’d start with fully understanding all the factors at play before making a recommendation, or offer a tentative solution that can be modified as more information comes in.
At the end of year one, how will you know I’ve been successful? One of the most effective ways to keep your job for as long as possible is to prove your worth to the business. Establishing up front how you would like to be measured, on terms you understand and feel comfortable driving, is critical to ensuring your success. Knowing how the company sees your role and its place in the business’s financial success is critical insight you’ll need from day one.
Surviving (and thriving) for the long haul
Let’s assume you’re still new enough at your company but you haven’t had to take ownership of the problems yet. How can you ensure that you’ll be given the time you need?
Set expectations as early as you can. The best times to do this are right before you accept the job and in your first board/exec meeting. The next best time is today. If you need a budget to test, explain up front that results are NOT guaranteed, but that you’ll promise to stop anything that’s blowing the budget.
Establish metrics and get a broad consensus on how to measure them. Measuring marketing is harder than it looks. Given how fuzzy the data from cookies is and given the likelihood that your data is siloed and time-consuming to gather, you want to get your company’s buy-in on how to measure your success before you start spending money. Doing it afterward will reek of self-justification and could sow seeds of distrust, undermining all the hard work you’re doing.
Report frequently, and honestly, about your performance. You’ve got to have the data and information you need to measure those goals you set early on. But once you do, publish those metrics and own your mistakes openly. This will enable you to own your successes as well. If you are open about the difficulties you face in testing and measurement, you will be better situated to enroll your colleagues to support you when you inevitably make a mistake. At each board meeting, go through each of your objectives and demonstrate forward progress, even if the results can’t (yet) be measured in business impact.
You got this job because you know what you’re doing. But you’ll only keep the job if you can measure your progress. So roll up your sleeves and get elbow-deep in the data and marketing tools. When you bring the numbers, it’s hard to argue with you, and that gives you more time to blow them all away with your performance.
Melinda Byerley is a Founding Partner at TimeshareCMO.