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Marketing’s Project-Centricity Problem

Chief marketing officers (CMOs) are enjoying longer tenures these days. This good news is due, in large part, to their focus on customer centricity and the value their organizations derive from placing customers at the center of the business.

There is also some bad news: Job security (what tenure measures) increasingly looks like a short-term and flawed metric. Worse, focusing too much on jobs, and too little on projects, may detract from marketing’s ability to sustain customer centricity over the long term. That’s because marketing’s work—like most other forms of knowledge work—is becoming less about jobs and more about projects.

Certainly, the elongation of CMO tenure, which Senior Writer Al Urbanski mentions while writing about the maturation of the B2B CMO role, represents a positive development. “CMOs truly have come of age,” reports Greg Welch, a consultant for Spencer Stuart’s marketing office practice. “It would appear that today’s top marketers are, for the first time in recent history, truly enjoying the full impact that the marketing function can have in propelling an enterprise.”

Welch has measured average CMO tenure for nearly a decade. In 2004 the average tenure was less than two years (23.6 months); in 2012 it was nearly four years (45 months), according to Spencer Stuart’s figures.

But a larger, longer-term development—the  rise of knowledge work—explains  why marketing professionals outside of the CMO office shouldn’t feel terribly secure. The problem, explains University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management Dean Roger Martin, is that companies haven’t figured out how to manage knowledge workers.

Companies “compete fiercely to find and retain the best talent, often accumulating thousands of managers in the process,” Martin writes in the October issue of Harvard Business Review. “For a while, this is fine, but inevitably, usually when economic conditions turn less favorable, they realize that these expensive workers are not as productive as hoped, and in an effort to manage costs they lay off a large swath of them. Soon after, though, they’re out recruiting again.”

If you’ve been employed in this profession for more than a few economic cycles, you know firsthand that Martin’s point also rings true when “marketing” is added to “managers” and “workers.”

Martin says the key to breaking the “binge-and-purge cycle” of knowledge work “is to use the project rather than the job as the organizing principle.” In other words, think more like an outside consultant. As a professional services provider, this approach resonates with me. I’ve seen “jobs”—with their territorial responsibilities, politics, and security concerns—impede  the execution of well-conceived projects time and time again.

Interestingly, Martin holds up a marketing example to illustrates what a more project-centric approach looks like. In his example, a brand manager discovers that the exact nature of her job changes regularly. Yes, she helps her boss nurture the brand. But the projects she conceives, oversees, and helps execute range from pricing, to managing production glitches, to addressing other shipping delays, to figuring out what to do in her downtime.

That downtime—an often terrifying prospect to those born and bred on a 20th century, manufacturing-centric conception of eight-hour work days, 40-hour work weeks, and other forms of constancy that no longer jibe with a 21st century knowledge economy—may be the biggest impediment to marketing adopting a more project-centric approach.

Placing projects at the center of the marketing function does not require CMOs to replace full-time workers with contractors. It does, however, require them to take a fresh look at how they manage marketing work and marketing workers.


Freelance journalist Eric Krell works with Mitel CMO Martyn Ethrington to produce DMN’s Diary of a CMO.

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