- Chief marketing officers are tasked with navigating an ever-changing business and consumer landscape.
- Six marketing leaders told Insider how CMOs can help their companies grow and avoid pitfalls.
- This article is part of CMO Insider, a platform that explores how the role of chief marketing officer is evolving. Read more stories here.
Chief marketing officers are more critical than ever in safeguarding and growing brands as consumer tastes atomize, economic headwinds intensify, and the social environment gets more fractious.
At the same time, CMOs are facing budget constraints, paradigm-shifting technology like ChatGPT, and customers who expect near-total personalization from brand relationships.
“We have a disrupted journey from attention to acquisition,” said Ewan McIntyre, the VP analyst and chief of research for Gartner’s marketing practice. “Demonstrable value is tougher than it’s ever been. CMOs are doing their work at a time when it’s a really tough gig.”
Gartner’s May 2023 “State of Marketing” report revealed marketing budgets fell from 9.5% of company revenue in 2022 to 9.1% in 2023; three-quarters of CMOs reported being asked to do “more with less” in 2023.
To explore the shifting role of CMOs, Insider got insight from an expert who studies and advises them, and spoke to five top CMOs about their work, their priorities, and what the future holds for marketers.
“The CMO has become the overall driving force in terms of commercial performance for a company,” said Alex Schellenberger, the Paris-based CMO of premium, midscale, and economy brands at hospitality giant Accor. “The pressure is getting bigger in that what we do is delivering tangible, quantifiable value to owners, guests, and society as a whole.”
On the creative side, “media has changed drastically,” said Netflix CMO Marian Lee Dicus. “TikTok, for example, wasn’t around a few years ago. We must keep up tactically. And while creative underpins our roles, we have more data at our disposal than ever.”
For brands that take sides, “issues can be a brand destroyer”
A 2019 Insider headline declared that “brands can no longer stay away from social and political issues.”
But as recent backlash against some brands has demonstrated, taking a stand can damage business, some CMOs and experts say – especially in today’s polarized environment.
“Picking sides alienates sides,” said Kimberly Whitler, who studies CMOs as an associate professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. “These issues can be a brand reputation destroyer.”
Jessica Jensen, the CMO of jobs site Indeed, has made social issues a central part of her presence on social platforms like LinkedIn: During Pride Month, Indeed’s editorial content featured broad LGBTQ+ content. “We champion issues like LGBTQ+ rights and gender-pay equality, but don’t get as much organic negativity as I’d expect,” Jensen said. “Inclusivity and diversity are part of our fundamental business goals. Talent is universal, but opportunity is not.”
Schellenberger is more cautious. “There is a time and place where it’s time to stand up and fight for values and principles you believe in,” he said. “There are good use cases where this worked out well, like Nike and Colin Kaepernick. But it’s attached to risk. We don’t do it yet – not because we’re afraid, but because the right opportunity hasn’t come up.”
Some CMOs choose not to engage with social or political issues, keeping focused on immediate brand challenges. “It’s not my experience responding to social issues. I’m focused with teams around the world to bring content to life for our 230 million members,” said Dicus. “Netflix is largely defined by our shows and movies.” After damage suffered by “activist” brands this year, more CMOs might follow its lead.
“Consumers will always ask, ‘Is this a brand for people like me?’ The backlash represents a failure to understand the consumer,” Whitler said. “Look at politics, where they will write a statement and test it with every splinter group and subset. Which statement or position will bring in the broadest public reaction?”
AI will destroy some jobs, but creatives have an edge, CMOs say
ChatGPT, generative AI, and other tools hold huge promise for marketers. But CMOs agree they’re primarily efficiency tools for now – with humans still driving creative decisions.
“It’s going to give businesses the opportunity to take some of the more repetitive, simple tasks, like gathering data on promotions, which used to take ‘X’ hours by ‘Y’ number of people,” said Jonathan Adashek, IBM’s senior vice president of marketing and communications and chief communications officer. “The manager still makes decisions on the promotion. But AI frees up those people to do more client-facing jobs, like creating content.”
Adashek, who markets IBM’s own AI products to clients, said CMOs still harbor misconceptions about the technology. “ChatGPT has done a great job of raising awareness, but there’s a huge range of AI out there,” he said. “When I’m talking to the CIO of a major sports team who says she needs ChatGPT for her team, I say, ‘Really? Or do you need generative AI created for your organization and trained off data to tell fans, players, and employees what you want to give them?'”
Marketers who believe ChatGPT will replace them are also misguided, Adashek said. “It will augment creativity, not replace humans,” he added. “Somebody’s got to run the prompt. Some people will need to get new skills along the way, and jobs may change. There must be constant learning.”
At Accor, likewise, “we do the creative part ourselves,” Schellenberger said. “Where you use AI is to make sure the creative changes depending on who’s in front of the screen. It’s a wonderful tool, but I wouldn’t use AI for fundamental, big, creative communications questions. Humans are still more capable than machines when it comes to creative thinking patterns.”
High tech rules, but traditional media still matters, CMOs say
Even with the dominance of social platforms and the emergence of AI, traditional media still plays a key role for brands. “Traditional media is still 100% relevant,” said Netflix’s Dicus. “We rely on traditional media for content whose audiences are still engaging that way, whether it’s out-of-home or broadcast. It still has a place that’s important in terms of where we’re meeting audiences.”
Indeed’s Jensen said the company is big on TV, audio, and direct mail, as well as many digital channels. “We’re trying to reach jobseekers around the world, and there’s a giant variety of media channels,” he added. “The rise of streaming, and the profusion of video channels, has certainly been challenging for us and every marketer.”
In hospitality, “traditional media still plays a huge role,” said Accor’s Schellenberger. “It’s partially dictated by budgets. In terms of reach, there’s still no match for TV in markets like Germany and the UK. If your No. 1 KPI is building awareness, traditional media is still the best way to do it, along with other digital media tools.”
As consumers atomize and reaching them becomes more challenging, the CMO’s role will become even more critical — and more demanding.
Biggest mistakes: Being boring and “lack of maturity”
For Netflix’s Dicus, the biggest mistake is “being boring.” She explained, “The key part of being CMO for me is creative. We want someone to see a TV spot or ad or TikTok activation and have such an emotional reaction that they want to share it.” Dicus and her team have engineered viral moments and live activations that have helped make shows like “Wednesday” and “Queen Charlotte” gargantuan hits.
Data underpin Dicus’ creative strategies, she said, adding “We ground ourselves in science, then focus on what our creative strategy is to make sure we’re connecting to the right audience. But you can only do that in an emotional way. Science comes into play in the execution.”
But creativity can become its own trap, Indeed’s Jensen said. “The biggest mistake I see in marketing departments is over indexing on brand and creative, and under indexing on math,” she said. “I think that brands that don’t embrace the interplay of performance and brand marketing, and develop a math-based approach as a result, will not succeed in the long run.”
Hastily cutting budgets can also backfire for CMOs, Jensen said. “In a period of economic decline or uncertainty like we’re in today, the rush of many marketing organizations to slash budgets and reduce brand investment is perilous,” she added. “Brand investments take time to grow, but erode quickly. Research proves that companies that continue to invest in marketing during periods of decline perform substantially better.”
Gartner’s McIntyre agreed. “In a constrained budget environment, there’s a lack of maturity in some of the decisions made in terms of what to cut and what to keep, and it has an impact on the brand,” he said. “A lot of CEOs still focus on easy decisions about media spend or laying people off before they look at making a more efficient marketing machine. There’s still a prevailing sense that ‘tech is going to save me — I can spend more and more on this stuff, and it will pay off.’ Good CMOs are enterprise leaders, not just marketing leaders. They have to make fiscally responsible decisions.”
For other CMOs, the biggest pitfall is “projecting themselves as the customer of their own brand,” said Schellenberger. “The minute you start working on the brand, you stop being one of your target consumers.”