Does CEO-CMO Alignment Go Far Enough for Business Growth?


Does your CEO understand marketing?

They probably think they do, but they probably don’t, according to your CMO.

Who’s right?

New McKinsey research finds despite their agreement that strong marketing equals business growth, their understanding of marketing stands as divided as ever.

How do you bring together leadership to focus on the same goals?  How can you help your business parents communicate and bring your work family together?

The answer might surprise you.

Watch CMI’s chief strategy advisor Robert Rose explain, or keep reading his thoughts:

Last week, the global consulting firm McKinsey released the results of a survey with more than 100 people in C-level growth roles – from chief marketing officers to chief growth officers – and 21 CEOs from B2b and B2C companies of all sizes across industries.

If the sample size sounds too small to make any quantitative decisions, you’d be right. However, the insights validate what Robert has seen in the marketing practice at larger organizations.

Shared definition of marketing role correlates to business growth

Not surprisingly, the relationship between CEO and CMO and their joint definition of marketing’s role in shaping business growth highly correlated to the business growth strategy. Robert offers a simpler translation: If CEOs and CMOs agree on what marketing is supposed to do, their businesses typically outperform their peers who don’t agree.

More interestingly, some challenges bubbled up in the research that Robert’s seen working with clients. “As modern marketing has evolved from the 4Ps – product, price, place, and promotion – to a broader scope of just promotion, businesses have typically done two things,” he explains.

First, companies have created more marketing-adjacent roles, such as chief customer officers, chief revenue officers, chief growth officers, and chief experience officers. These executives handle the sales or customer-oriented functions and relegate pricing, pricing, and place (distribution) to other departments.

Second, these companies build more promotional/marketing and content teams to focus (or silo, which might be the better word choice) around functions like the customer journey or by product. They create awareness teams, demand generation teams, sales-enablement teams, and customer experience teams who report to other functional C-suite leaders in varying degrees.

“That blurs marketing’s role as an overall, integrated strategy and confuses what the CMO should focus on,” Robert says.

As the McKinsey research found and illustrated in a perfect example of this confusion, CEOs and CMOs aren’t often on the same page about the primary role of marketing in their companies. While they largely agree on the focus as brand steward, they agree little on marketing’s role in customer experience, salesforce enabler, customer relationships, loyalty, etc.

One root at the disconnect? McKinsey points to how few Fortune 250 CEOs have marketing experience. They’re not familiar with the increasingly technical, data-driven discipline that marketing has become.

“But that’s not new,” Robert says. “Since the beginning of marketing, the cliché has been everybody has two jobs – theirs and marketing. CEOs fall into that “everybody” category. They have an opinion on marketing even though they know nothing about it.”

Not enough for CMOs and CEOs to agree

McKinsey suggests CMOs do a better job of clarifying the role of marketing in the business and more effectively communicate and educate. They suggest the CMO and the CEO must jointly understand what marketing’s remit is. They also must agree on the measurement frameworks and the marketing innovations needed to get there.

“That’s fine if not stale advice,” Robert says.

Of course, it would be great if CMOs and CEOs aligned around the company objectives and de-silo operations to create an integrated opportunity.

But, Robert says, that needs to happen a few levels lower than the CEO. The modern CMO and the modern CEO, especially at larger organizations but even at mid-sized organizations, are less involved in the details of marketing than ever before. It’s not uncommon for CMOs to lean hard on functional or line-of-business leaders to create their plans. Then, they make the CMO aware of what’s going on by summarizing their strategy in one page or having a five-minute conversation.

“Once the CMO and CEO come together, it’s up to you – the mid-level team leads – to work together and stop competing for the same audiences,” Robert says.

That requires understanding how the big objectives work together to form joint goals and objectives. It means your team may be just a lever, not the fulcrum, on one initiative. For another effort, it might be vice versa. Ultimately, you should revisit the whole idea of integrated marketing planning, which is a lost art in many businesses.

The McKinsey report finishes with a quote from a CMO at a national retail pharmacy: “CEOs should ask themselves what outcomes – not activities – do I want from marketing? Then they should ask their CMOs what are the best levers to achieve the outcomes.”

Robert agrees wholeheartedly with that CMO. But, he says, before the CMO answers that question for the CEO, they should ask themselves the same question and ask their teams what levers would propel them to a range of outcomes.

That way, the CEO isn’t asking for more than can be done, and the CMO isn’t promising less than the marketing organization can do.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute


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