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CMOs are climbing a burning rope

How many years would you say it takes to become the CMO of a company? Now mind you, I am referring to the person who has paid their dues and performed every marketing function under the sun and not gotten there because their Dad happens to own the company. No, I am talking about the true blue Chief Marketing Officer that has reached the pinnacle of their profession and apparently starts a clock ticking down the 23 or so months they have to right the ship that was floating rudderless by the last poor soul whose 23-month time to live expired?

Would it be fair to say that it can take a minimum of 10 and more likely closer to 20-plus years to get to that level in most cases? When you see the 35-year-old CMO, it raises a few eyebrows because they seem so young to have that much experience, right?
So where am I going with this? Let’s get back to the burning rope in the post’s title. Imagine you have worked your entire career to get to the top of a corporate rope rather than a ladder. Ever tried to climb a rope? It’s hard. I have awful memories of physical fitness tests in gym class that could expose the weakest part of the strongest people. It’s hard to climb a rope. Now imagine that as you climb that rope has been set on fire from the bottom and is catching up to you rapidly. You climb faster and faster to escape the flames but eventually they will catch up and then what? You fall and there is nothing to break your fall but the ground and the accompanying broken bones that will inevitably result.

Rope climbing

Image by timblair via Flickr

So get to the CMO part, right? Today’s CMO’s have likely cut their teeth in a world of old,  traditional media that was about eyeballs and agencies. There was schmoozing that needed to be done and cigars to be smoked in leather chairs around mahogany tables. There were TV ads to create and get all giddy over because they were so creative and entertaining. And measurements? I can hear it now, “Ha! This is marketing, son! We don’t really measure anything here! We just figure that if enough people see our stuff and we entertain them enough that surely someone will buy it! Oh, and that Internet thingy that showed up before the turn of the century….just a fad.”
Well, that rope that was climbed to get to the top of the marketing food chain has been set on fire in the past five years by social media and the Internet in general, and I suspect that many CMO’s could be a little worried. The sweetest three letters that anyone could speak in old marketing terms belonged to ABC, CBS, and NBC. Now the only three letters that matter to a marketer are ROI.
Today’s CMO faces scrutiny unlike ever in the past. The word accountability is now just as important to the CMO as it has always been to the CFO. Just for C-suite kicks, I bet more than a few CFOs elbow the C marketer and chuckle “How’s it feel?”
Thus, the corporate ladder has been replaced by the corporate rope. A ladder implies the chance to at least make a descent without being scraped off the pavement. The CMO rope is one where the trip down is fast and furious. There is no safety net in marketing’s new world order of social media, brand decentralization and the kind of messaging chaos that birthed the expression “herding cats.”
So what’s an old school CMO to do? I suggest they hold on to the rope they have left and stop the fire below you. Roll up your sleeves and get back in the classroom to learn how this Internet thing works for real—not just in theory. Stop playing house and commit to the new reality of the digital marketplace. Otherwise, start figuring out the best way to cushion your inevitable fall from grace as the Internet marketing young gun takes the reins that you let go long ago over a meal and a media buy.

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