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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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  1. Avatar Tom O'Brien

    Hi Frank:
    Just a question – but do you think the CMO climb to the top is any harder than the CFO or the CIO climb to the top?
    And do you think the CMO world is really changing faster than the CIO or CFO world?
    I think being a great leader is hard – no matter the function, no matter the time. It takes vision, clarity, focus, creativity and commitment. Always did, always will.

  2. Avatar Frank Reed

    @Tom – I would suspect they all are equally as difficult. I only address the marketing side because that is where I live. I wouldn’t know what it takes for the CFO or CIO to get to the top. Sure there are changes and challenges there too.
    The main difference, as I alluded to in the post, is that now the CMO is being held accountable using actual numbers. My suspicion is that CIO’s and CMO’s have had that pressure all along while the marketing side was given a lot more leeway because before the net it was hard to pin down actual numbers and directly point to the return on many marketing campaigns.
    Anyway, thanks for stopping by.

  3. Avatar Seo Company

    Many persons underestimate young people intelligence and capability to perform tasks in such important positions of a company.

  4. Avatar Roger

    I totally agree with Frank Reed here, young people are often underestimated; the “old” guy on 45 is huffing the new “child boss” on 25-30; “how the heck can a kid like that be in charge of this firm, he have no experience”. Now well, I`ve got a friend who became CEO in his company before his 30th birthday. The exact thing happened, but he took them all by surprise, I`ll tell you that much..

  5. Avatar freelance copywriters

    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.
    This is right. Today, CMO faces more challenges. But things will get better, I believe so myself.

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