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CMO Transitions: The Shuffle Continues

An alarming number of companies across industries have undergone a change in the top marketing role once again this year.

As we continue to track the publicly announced departures and hirings of CMOs of US companies across a range of sectors (we first noted the high number of CMO transitions in 2018), our experience indicates transitions are happening at an unprecedented rate. Interestingly, our annual CMO Tenure Study of the 100 most-advertised brands has remained stable at 43 months in 2018 (versus 44 months in 2017), perhaps masking the volatility of the role more broadly.

That said, the visual below captures a broader set of important brands and companies (not all of which would fall into the top 100) that are experiencing CMO changes. And importantly, this reflects not only Spencer Stuart’s work in the space, but it represents a broader snapshot of the ever-changing environment.

What’s driving these transitions?

Movement of key marketing leaders creates massive ripples not only within the marketing team itself but can significantly impact agency partners and other functional peers within the organization. Although there are varying factors for these transitions, we are continuing to see some of the same common reasons for the ongoing turnover, including:

  • Failure to properly assess the incoming CMO’s skills and experiences, ensuring that they are properly aligned with the future needs of the organization
  • Poor alignment between the CEO and CMO on the mission (and the timeline) of the marketing organization’s output
  • Inflated expectations for “unicorn” CMOs who can immediately blend “magic” (creative) and “logic” (performance data) to drive growth, and bring others along on the transformation of the overall marketing efforts — and do it while aligning with (or changing) the organizational culture
  • Waiting until “Day 1” to begin, whereas most successful CMOs seize on the chance to build momentum before their tenure formally begins

As for those CMOs bringing stability to the marketing function within their organization, they most often demonstrate:

Creative and compelling communication – Being a contagious evangelist to drive positive change.

A self-reflective commitment to learning – Possessing a high level of self-awareness to acknowledge what they don’t know, along with the humility to shed their preconceptions and curiosity about what they might learn.

A deep-rooted focus on team-building – Creating a marketing team that works together and can thrive in a disruptive environment, where employee satisfaction and engagement are key priorities.

An appreciation for alliances – Building relationships with C-suite peers and drawing both inspiration and improved collaboration from these interactions.

Will we see a slowdown of CMO shuffles by the end of 2019?

Despite the current volatility, it remains unclear if the sheer number of transitions will continue or if they will taper off by the end of 2019. However, as our recent article indicates, the executives with the best chance of success don’t always fit the culture perfectly – instead, they are the most adaptable. While there are numerous factors contributing to these shifts (and certainly more than are mentioned here), reversing the trend will require both the CMO and CEO to take a hard look at expectations, agree upon what success will look like and perhaps most importantly in an environment marked by change, they will need to adapt. In the meantime, we will continue to partner closely with our candidates and clients in addition to industry organizations in hopes of stemming these shifts.