The importance of becoming a ‘unifier’ CMO – and building relationships in the C-suite

There has arguably never been a better time to be a CMO. After years of defining marketing primarily as the “brand” or “advertising” arm of the business, many CEOs now regard it as an investment and rely on it to drive growth. To deliver on that growth expectation, CMOs need to form bonds with other members of the C-suite. Cross-functional collaboration is essential. 

But to build deep, productive relationships, CMOs have to win over some sceptics in the C-suite. Only half the CFOs we surveyed, for example, said marketing delivers on the promise of driving growth, and 40 percent don’t think marketing investments should be protected during a downturn.

Three different CMO types

We have found that CMOs are divided into three archetypes, each with distinctive habits and traits: the Unifier, the Friend, and the Loner. However, only one—the Unifier—is the key to future victory.

McKinsey analysis shows that high-growth companies are seven times more likely to have a Unifier CMO—someone who fosters robust, collaborative partnerships across the C-suite—as the more isolated archetype we call Loner.  Here are the three archetypes that our analysis highlighted:

Unifiers: These CMOs are the masters of fostering cross-functional collaboration! They ensure that marketing has a clearly defined role in the eyes of C-suite peers; they adopt the language and mindset of other C-suite executives; and they articulate how marketing can help meet the C-suite’s needs. They also establish mutual accountability and a shared vision with other executives.

Sought after by peers for advice, they have a seat at the table when critical decisions are made, have broad profit-and-loss (P&L) responsibility, and are often involved in defining the company’s strategy.

Friends: The most prevalent type of CMO, the Friend has one or two allies in the C-suite, often the CEO, but hasn’t been able to spread marketing’s agenda fully across the organisation. Responsible for top-line growth through marketing channels,

Friend CMOs typically don’t have broad P&L responsibility or even much influence across the entirety of customer experience, such as product development and customer service.

Loners: These CMOs may be great marketers, but they don’t have the full support of, or deep relationships with their C-suite peers. Loners tend to focus on near-term activities like ad campaigns and social media. They are seen by CEOs as executors of brand stewardship, advertising, and PR, not as equal partners.

What unifiers add to the mix

Unifier CMOs work directly with relevant members of the C-suite to drive the business’s growth agenda in four areas:

Align with CEO on growth agenda: Unifier CMOs start by making sure the CEO understands how exactly marketing is driving growth, owning the customer, and serving the company’s broader goals and objectives. Unifiers weave many sources of insight and a deep understanding of the customer into a holistic picture of opportunity that the CMO and CEO jointly translate into short- and long-term initiatives.

Adopt the mindset of a CFO: Forty-five percent of CFOs we surveyed said the reason marketing proposals have been declined or not fully funded in the past is because they didn’t demonstrate a clear line to value. To overcome this, Unifier CMOs demonstrate that marketing does in fact drive predictable and significant value. The best marketers use advanced analytics to build business cases with metrics that reflect meaningful financial value (ROI, customer lifetime value, revenue run rate) rather than more prevalent but less valid—in the CFO’s eyes, anyway—indicators, such as brand equity.

Partner with the CTO to unlock the power of data: Companies with Unifier CMOs understand that marketing and technology are inextricable partners in developing capabilities for unlocking value in new ways. Unifier CMOs are about three times as likely as Loners to have their own dedicated data-analytics teams, for example, which help improve the quality and speed of marketing decisions. 

As partners with the CTO, they develop a shared vision of how data from separate, disconnected systems can be integrated and then used to understand customers at granular levels, personalise interactions, and predict customer behaviour. CTOs who feel responsible for the outcomes of marketing initiatives are more likely to devote dedicated resources to them.

Educate and collaborate with the CHRO to win the war for talent: Although companies with Unifiers are roughly three times more likely than those with Loners to attract and develop talent that balances analytics and creativity, they still report difficulty in meeting their talent needs.

Overall there is a massive talent gap: a stunning 82 percent of Fortune 500 executives don’t believe they recruit highly talented people. Relying on legacy recruiting and training programs won’t do. The CMO can play a critical and influential role here by engaging with the CHRO, educating her about marketing’s diverse talent requirements and the need to evolve the organisation’s culture for the next generation.

Marketing has changed and the CMO needs to be empowered

As one former retail CEO put it to me, “It used to be that the CMO worked in a world very different from the rest of the executives. Marketing was more of a craft and not as measurable. [Data] has changed how the C-suite is interacting with marketing. Now it’s very hard to separate company strategy from marketing strategy.”

CMOs need to create networks across the C-suite, but the C-suite itself has an important role to play as well to help the business drive growth. Ultimately, every CMO needs to ask themselves whether the C-suite is empowering them to function as a Unifier? And if not, become an agent for change.

Editor's note: The author would like to thank Julien Boudet, Brian Gregg, Jason Heller, and Jesko Perrey for their contributions to this article.

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