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Back to basics for CMOs?

It’s common knowledge that CMOs are among the industry’s shortest-tenured marketing professionals, with an average employment lifespan of just two years. Much has been written about this problem: Some blame the mess on unrealistically high expectations placed on CMOs by senior management, while others cite the silly “CMO as Rock Star” phenomenon, which leads to back-biting and sabotaging within the organization. Still others blame today’s fragmented, complicated multichannel marketing environment, which is daunting enough to give even experienced marketers pause.

Each of these explanations has a grain of truth to it, but I think they’re all missing the main point. From my perspective (that of a search marketer who frequently talks to CMOs at large and mid-sized firms), the problem is more basic, and more frightening. In my view, too many CMOs seem to lack the fundamental skill set to do their jobs, especially those skill sets derived from exposure to the principles of direct marketing.

It wasn’t always this way. Twenty years ago, marketing professionals learned DM fundamentals by working at a DM firm. There, in an extended, learn-through-doing apprenticeship, budding CMOs learned the basics of DM from soup to nuts. Only after a prolonged exposure to the disciplines of segmentation, direct mail, list management and testing methodologies were these people allowed to climb further up the ladder.

But marketing isn’t taught this way today. Mentoring is practically non-existent, and the concept of building a long-term wealth-building career has fallen out of fashion. Today, marketing is all about glamour, interactivity, quick wealth and instant gratification, and the sexy stuff that lights up young people’s eyes is the gee-whiz, word-of-mouth, emergent, virally-powered stuff.

Consequently, there are a lot of people working in top-level marketing positions who’ve never even licked a postage stamp. The result is an almost spectacular level of cluelessness that I’ve never seen before. For example, one of the first things that many CMO’s tell me when we discuss search is “whatever you do with my campaign, I can’t see any drop in orders.”

 “Even if those orders are your most unprofitable ones?” I ask.

 “Yes. If my boss sees any drop in orders my head is on a plate.”

 “So your real goal isn’t profitability, it’s just gross sales?”

 “That’s just the way it is around here. Keep the orders up and you’ll keep my account.”

Amazingly, this CMO clearly has no concept of the difference between order volume and gross profitability. What could be more basic? The fact that his boss (the CEO) uses orders, not profitability, as his primary criteria to judge his CMO is even more disturbing. Did these guys somehow manage to earn MBAs without actually showing up for class?

Fortunately, it’s apparent that more senior marketers are beginning to appreciate the importance of marketing basics. In late November, a firm called Anderson Analytics polled 600 members of the Marketing Executive Networking Group and found that 60% of them named “Marketing Basics” as the most important marketing trend. This is refreshing, because without a grasp of basics, any marketing you do through any channel is doomed to fail.

But the DM industry can’t afford to be complacent. We need to do a much better job of attracting today’s top marketing talent. Sadly, a lot of young people would rather hitch their wagon to an exciting interactive company with a flaky business model than a stodgy DM firm with a solid one. One reason this situation persists is because the attitude toward technology among too many of DM firms’ senior managers is defensive.

Just as CMOs have recognized that they need to go back to basics, the DM industry needs to embrace technology (especially search technology, because search is the most important direct response medium today) more fully. My hope is that tomorrow’s generation of senior marketers will have a much better understanding both of technology, and the fundamental principles of marketing. Unless they are comfortable in both worlds, CMOs will never be able to perform optimally.

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