The chief marketing officer role is one of the most dynamic, challenging, exhilarating, complex, nuanced and powerful in the C-suite. CMOs are driving innovation in myriad ways and in areas as diverse yet tightly woven as culture, technology, talent, creativity, product development, organizational structure, purpose and process. Some of the most innovative CMOs around the globe are leading marketing at some of the biggest U.S. and multinational corporations—creating waves of impact on their companies, the industry and society as they make choices in agency partners, work to build diverse and inclusive teams, unveil groundbreaking ad campaigns and otherwise steward iconic brands. The Forbes World’s Most Influential CMOs list annually identifies these CMOs, those who are using voice and visibility to wield influence that is helping to move organizations, spur innovation, drive business growth and shape cultural narrative as never before.
But there is another community of CMOs who may not all be household names—yet. They may not be as visible as more established counterparts. They may have spent their time thus far heads-down, toiling to build a new brand or reset a historic company for future growth. They may have pioneered with a new career opportunity, jarring in its dissimilarity from anything else they had known, bringing a diversity of thinking and expertise to a fledgling culture. Through their work, the day-to-day of their posts, they are reimagining, reinventing and redefining the CMO role. They have diverse educations and career paths. They are progressive thinkers who bring an obsessive customer-first mindset to the job.
Today Forbes launches CMO Next, an unprecedented and definitive list of 50 CMOs who are redefining the CMO role and who embody all that the role is becoming, can be and will be in the future. Through qualitative research tapping into the expertise of industry watchers as well as Forbes’ editorial industry knowledge, the list features 50 people who have reached the highest-level marketing position within a given company—CMO title or equivalent—and who are driving brand and business growth. The list highlights the individuals’ education, expertise, experience, mindset and mandate within organizations. The individuals hail from both new and emerging companies as well as legacy, established corporations. Not a ranking, the goal is to annually spotlight CMOs who serve as models of a new, emerging and disruptive chief marketer.
That’s in line with experts’ thinking that we have hit a new era of CMO. “[For] marketing leaders and beyond, we’re way past the days when the roles were discretionary, expendable,” said Jim Stengel, CEO of the Jim Stengel Group and former global marketing officer of Procter & Gamble. “[CMOs are] involved in a company’s culture, positioning, working across boundaries.”
A moving target, “The role is already going in a lot of directions all at once,” said Peter Horst, founder of CMO Inc. and former CMO of the Hershey Co. and Capital One. “So there’s one vector of movement, which is the role becoming more and more about data and analytics and technology, and you see that there’s a whole breed of CMOs that grew up not through the brand and business path but more through the data, quant, and even digital technology path,” Horst said. “There’s also a way in which the CMO role is morphing, often in title, to being chief growth officer. And if not in title, then in spirit, where more and more of the things that are involved in driving top-line growth start to come under the fold of the CMO. So it might involve sales, it might involve strategy. There’s also the realm of customer experience, where, by definition, customer experience is a totally multi-functional all-enterprise undertaking,” he added. “The question is: Who’s the champion of that, who’s the ringleader? No one will own all aspects of it, but who’s going to be the one carrying the flag and leading the troops over the hill? That’s often the marketer, and that calls for a whole other set of activities, skills, focus areas,” Horst said. “I don’t think there’s another function in a company that has gotten so amorphous and varied in its descriptions and accountabilities.”
This year’s CMO Next listers are leading marketing and brand at startups; young, direct-to-consumer companies; and large, established brands. Among the 50, some are new to the role; others have logged years in the seat. They have attended universities including Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, Stanford University, University of Michigan, Dartmouth College, University of Pennylvania, University of Texas at Austin, Cambridge University, Brown University, Columbia University, Georgetown University, New York University, London School of Economics and Duke University. Their degrees and areas of study are eclectic: marketing, certainly, but also psychology, sociology, computer science, supply chain, journalism, mechanical engineering, exercise physiology, political science, medieval and modern languages, economics, finance, management, international relations, anthropology, English literature, art history, education, chemical engineering, information systems management. Half have earned their M.B.A.
Of CMOs’ increasingly diverse educational backgrounds, MaryLee Sachs, cofounder of BrandPie and author of The Changing MO of the CMO, said, “You still have a lot of the traditionally trained CMOs, but I also think there is more room for people coming from different subject areas. I feel that organizations are starting to think outside the sector for the first time, which is good.”
Few have prior experience working at a consumer package goods company, like Procter & Gamble, for many decades the de facto training ground for future marketing leaders. Many bring digital brands experience, tech experience and retail experience. Several have international experience and a data and engineering background. About 20% have worked at agencies previously. Several have built robust internal agencies and in-house capabilities. In their written responses, the words “growth,” “human,” “storytelling,” “omnichannel,” “consumer-first,” and “art and science” dominated. More than half are women. Besides CMO, titles include chief brand officer, chief growth officer, chief digital officer and chief community officer. All oversee marketing and brand engagement—even as they redefine what that is.
“CMOs are more of a conductor than ever before,” said Kim Whitler, assistant professor of business administration at Darden School of Business at University of Virginia and former CMO of David’s Bridal. “[They’re] more ambidextrous. A CMO has to be the person who stands at the top of the org chart and gets everyone to work together in concert with the rest of the firm,” she said.
Thomas Barta, CMO coach and author of The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader, agrees. “The CMO is a business leader with a marketing spike and not the other way around,” he said. “My suggestion for marketers is don’t start in marketing, if you can. Marketing is very powerful if you understand what the rest of the company does. The CMO needs to step up and to own the broader business digital-transformation discussion in order to remain a strategic asset within organizations.”
In fact, the evolution of the CMO role parallels the transition of marketing itself. “The M words seems to be the part that’s evolving the most,” said Catharine Hays, coauthor of Beyond Advertising: Creating Value Through All Customer Touchpoints, cohost of The CMO Spotlight on Wharton Business Radio and former executive director of the Wharton Future of Advertising Program. “Marketing has evolved from, ‘How do we sell the product/position the product/create marketing materials around these products/how do we go to market with them?’ to ‘What is the role of our brand and the product service line in our intended customers’ lives and the associated 360-degree view of that person’s life and what it means to them?’ That’s changed the very narrow definition of what a marketer did.”
Indeed, the 50 CMOs on this list have near-obsessive focus on their customers, talking about engaging with them in a fully omnichannel world and with a unique respect and allegiance—as if truly, the brand definition, relevance and utility was completely in their hands.
As a consequence, despite the urge to simplify the role, “I actually believe that the job has gotten harder,” said Norm Yustin, CMO Practice leader at executive-search firm Russell Reynolds Associates, of the CMO role in this new reality. “You can’t split your job by channel anymore. Wherever the customer is, you need to be there.
Proving marketing’s value and being fully accountable, meanwhile, has become table stakes for relevance and survival. “The CMO role per se is the only C-suite role where, despite the plethora of metrics, there really isn’t a tangible, result-based structure that works in the boardroom,” said Greg Paull, founder and principal of global marketing consultancy R3. “That’s what’s caused some CMO flux. Other C-suite roles have done a far better job of proving their value than the CMO,” he said. “The future CMO will need to bring in the right analytics to help reduce the risk of marketing and to give to a boardroom and some stakeholders and the executive team a far more accountable approach to what they’re doing. It just makes it a lot more data rigorous than what it’s been in the past,” Paull said.
“There has been this dramatic shift around data orientation,” agreed Kristi Maynor, CMO Practice lead at executive-search firm Egon Zehnder. But creativity is still critical among CMOs. The difference, she said, is that while it once was solely about creative expression, today’s CMOs need to exhibit creative thinking and creative problem-solving.
Added Nick Cromydas, cofounder of referral-recruiting company Hunt Club, “The transformation you’re seeing is a new generation of creativity that tests and finds scalable online channels and blends that with offline awareness to generate business.”
It’s a new, and somewhat elusive, unicorn that companies seek. “As you might expect, our clients pay us handsomely to identify and then bring forward the very best talent,” said Greg Welch, senior partner at executive-search firm Spencer Stuart. “So the stakes are very high for us. And often times, these leaders may come from nontraditional places. Consequently, we aren’t always so smitten with the ‘big names’ who are routinely on the speaking circuit and who often adorn the cover of great publications like even Forbes. Instead, I am in the market trying to get to know, and more important, deeply assess the real impact of these marketing leaders who are sometimes at lesser known companies,” Welch said. “My lens is actually pretty clear given that winning is actually really hard today, so I am looking for CMOs who have consistently ‘put the ball in the hoop’…have they successfully grown share and revenues? Have they orchestrated the launch of innovative new products or go-to-market strategies [that] disrupted the market? I also look for what could be best described as an undeniable ‘sparkle’ in their eye. Today, our clients need leaders who can not only construct a thoughtful marketing plan which blends art (magic) and science (data) but [more important], are able to deliver the messaging of the mission in a compelling way which makes others (in the C-suite as well as across the marketing team) want to willingly follow.”
Arguably, that can be easier at younger companies, which “are not starting with a legacy [such] that they have to rewrite history—they can be very purposeful, they can cast themselves in the way that they want to for today’s customers,” Sachs said. CMOs of startups, in particular, can authentically max out on the concept that a company cares about something, stands for more than selling a product, she said.
And authenticity will be key, not just for successful brands, but for groundbreaking CMOs moving forward. “It is going to be the age of authenticity, and realness is upon us, because I’m seeing a resurgence in the value and the need for character,” said Carlos Cata, marketing executive recruiter at executive-recruiting firm DHR International, adding that valued CMOs “in the age of anti-character” will be those “who aren’t about themselves, aren’t about the flash,” but that instead are “authentic leaders who are building up true capability, developing teams, and enriching the lives of those around them as opposed to their conference résumé.”
“We are still on the way,” Hays said of the CMO evolution. “CMOs are still up against traditional mindsets for what I outlined at the beginning: this narrow definition of what marketing is and can be. There are some great examples of those out there who are breaking barriers and redefining it.”
One thing is for certain: The name of the game for CMOs, something that reverberates in this year’s list, is growth. “The mandate is increasingly about growth,” Horst said. “It’s often been about innovation, but I think, more and more so, the mandate is about transformation of one kind or another—digital, cultural, customer. The mandate is more broad-reaching, so therefore calls for more influence and more broad business-minded thinking versus more classic functional marketing perspectives. It’s more and more of an orchestrator, ring-leader, than pure vertical leader.”