Got Skills?


The year that Rachel Spasser got her first taste of marketing Amy Winehouse took home a Grammy Award, the New York Giants won the Super Bowl, and the price of gas topped $3 a gallon. A lot has changed since 2008, including what it takes to become a chief marketing officer.

“If you look at CMOs today, they’re businesspeople who understand how to market,” says Spasser, CMO at private equity firm Accel-KKR. “They’re not your marketing professional of old—your Mad Men-type of professional or even your marcom type of professional. They have a much broader skill-set.”

No longer are creativity and brand building the main talents marketers need to get ahead. Rather, highly informed consumers, social media mania, and the ubiquity of data are changing the playing field, forcing marketers to evolve from behind-the-scenes strategists to business-savvy leaders. “If you don’t become a powerful CMO you’ll be out of a job,” says Neeraj Agrawal, general partner of VC firm Better Ventures.

Still, many up-and-coming CMOs are confused about the types of skills they need to work their way up the corporate ranks in today’s fast-changing environment. Here, experts describe six talents marketers must master to take the helm as CMO.

Learn how to lead

For many years marketers crafted plans, managed budgets, and nurtured customer relationships to little fanfare. But that’s all changing as digital technology and a customer-centric sales environment pushes marketers into the limelight.

“The CMO is now a fixture at the leadership table,” Spasser says. “The company is looking to that person for more than just marketing. They’re looking to marketers for their business acumen and to influence the realms of sales, products, strategy, and support.”

Integrate CMO Scott Vaughan agrees. “Leadership is the number one skill to have,” he says. “It’s about the ability to find and attract talent, to guide talent, to communicate across an organization. Leaders also need to have a point of view and engage with customers.”

But that’s not all. Marketers who take on a leadership role also need to acquire a deep understanding of how teams work together, Spasser says—especially considering that marketing activities from launching a social media campaign to mining data for customer feedback can have a direct impact on such areas as sales, product development, public relations, even analyst relations. “Today, what sets the great marketing department apart from the OK one is the ability to work together in an integrated manner,” she says.

Shore up your business smarts

Spasser cut her teeth working for a variety of companies in a marketing capacity, but says that earning an MBA has proven invaluable in her role as CMO. “You need a strong foundation in business and you need to understand finance and accounting,” she says.

It’s easy to see why. “CMOs are often hired to drive enterprise-wide change and increase value creation,” says Caren Fleit, senior client partner, leader, at executive recruiting firm Korn Ferry’s Global Marketing Center of Expertise.

In fact, failure to demonstrate how certain marketing activities contribute to an organization’s revenue growth can have a disastrous impact on a CMO’s career trajectory. According to a 2014 Korn Ferry Marketing Pulse Survey, 57% of CMOs cite the inability to directly connect marketing efforts to tangible business outcomes as the top factor behind low CMO tenure. Another key contributor to high turnover: 17% of respondent CMOs point to the inability to align marketing deliverables with CEO objectives.

Laura McGarrity is all too familiar with how business smarts can help marketers ascend the corporate ladder in today’s results-oriented market. McGarrity is vice president of digital marketing strategy at Mondo, which specializes in providing digital marketing resources and tech talent to companies. “With new technologies emerging, and with customer engagement and data being more [important] than ever, marketers have to show their impact on the bottom line from a revenue and ROI standpoint,” she says.

Know thy customer

Long before data analytics and social media monitoring entered marketers’ lexicon, “you heard the word ‘brand’ a lot,” Integrate’s Vaughan recalls. “It was all about owning, managing, and building the brand.”

But as consumers’ access to information increases, and they leverage that information to make smarter purchasing decisions, marketers are shifting their focus from brand building to customer engagement. In fact, 34% of respondents to the Korn Ferry survey cite the ability to create sustainable and engaging customer relationships while improving the customer experience as what plagues CMOs the most.

Yet, for marketers willing to invest the time and effort in understanding customer needs, the sky’s the limit. “Marketers who are customer-obsessed have an opportunity to move into the main office,” Vaughan says. “There’s no question about that in my mind.”

Delve into analytics

Some organizations are reluctant to hire high-priced data scientists to extract meaningful insights from their data. Rather, many of those companies are looking to marketers to collect and analyze data: 79% of respondents to another recent Korn Ferry survey say their organization plans to increase the use of predictive analytics and Big Data tools.

No wonder the survey also found that digital marketing and analytical thinking are the most sought-after specialized skills within the marketing function. As data sources multiply exponentially, and data analytics tools become easier to use, chief marketers will need to be able to “navigate this digital era, understand data and know how to analyze it, and [know] how to build campaigns that drive ROI,” Mondo’s McGarrity says. “That’s what’s going to be most important for CMOs positioning themselves.”

The good news is tools such as data visualization applications are helping less tech-savvy marketing professionals more easily mine data without the need for a degree in data science.

Conduct a skills inventory

Data analytics expertise isn’t the only route to the various types of insight that marketing leaders need today. One of the most vital skills a marketer can possess is the ability to take an honest inventory of one’s strengths—and weaknesses.

“To be an effective CMO, you have to empower the people on your team—people who have deep functional expertise,” Accel-KKR’s Spasser says. As a result, she adds, “you have to be comfortable
understanding that they’re going to be much smarter than you in a particular function.” Accepting this humbling reality based on a personal skills inventory is all part of ensuring the right questions are asked of the right people for the best results.

Make communication a priority

Marketers excel at crafting customer-facing messages. But there’s a difference between clever external messaging and the internal communications chief marketers need to master. “Marketing is about more than driving brand awareness or top-of-the-funnel activity,” Spasser says. “It’s now about internal communication. How do you make sure employees are aligned with the company’s vision? How do you work with the product and support team to make sure that the value proposition you promised upfront is carried out consistently throughout the customer lifecycle?” Only by possessing strong communication skills can senior marketers rally disparate departments into working together to achieve an organization’s business and marketing goals.

It will take plenty of time and the right skills for marketers to shed their age-old image of being creative yet business-challenged brand ambassadors. But according to Mondo’s McGarrity, “If you can innovate, and step out of the stereotype of that traditional CMO, you’ll be highly marketable.”

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