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Spencer Stuart’s CMO Summit Celebrates 20 Years

January 2023

Spencer Stuart marked a significant milestone in the marketing community when it convened its 20th annual CMO Summit. And with our first in-person summit in three years due to COVID-19, the anniversary summit was reimagined as an intimate gathering of a preeminent group of marketers engaged in a rich, interactive discussion.

Facilitating the discussion were Richard Sanderson, a consultant and leader of Spencer Stuart's Marketing, Sales & Communications Practice, and Greg Welch, a consultant in the practice. The evening’s illuminating conversation focused on two key questions: 1) Looking at the past 20 years, what have been the top influences on the marketing function in general? And 2) what will be new about marketing leadership in the next five to 10 years?

The conversation started with a question about the most notable changes in marketing since the first CMO Summit in 2003. The participants reflected on the simpler promotional tools and tactics employed during that era.

“2003 was pre-everything. It was pre-digital. Big data was coming. Social media was just getting born at that time. Facebook wasn't even off the Harvard campus yet,” said Russ Klein, the former global president of Burger King, a five-time Fortune 500 CMO and former CEO of the American Marketing Association. “It was also part of the advent [of] the twin engines of marketing: strategic marketing and performance marketing.”

The question of change pointed to the advancements in technology as the most profound shift. The rise of technology has brought new responsibilities and ethical dilemmas for CMOs.

“We've been at the forefront of that evolution when data and technology moved from being digital groups and subgroups to being core of everything we do,” said Caroline Donahue, formerly the chief marketing and sales officer at Intuit. “We just hit this pivotal moment where it's all come together.”

Klein reflected on just how much information today’s marketers have about their customers.

“I think the martech stack, the whole area of performance marketing, in some ways it's almost unfair the way we know not only what the customer's doing, but what will influence their behavior, where they'll be next,” he said. “I think there's a big responsibility issue that gets introduced into the conversation an as a result.”

Said Lorraine Barber-Miller, EVP and chief marketing and e-commerce officer of Phillips: “I believe the customer, the consumer, will dictate every interaction with our brands in the future, whether we like it or not. Data ethics and privacy is a huge topic that we're still just scratching the surface on, but we've got to get right.”

The summit guests examined not only how their relationship with the consumer has changed, but also how the public now has a megaphone and can carry messages even further.

“Whether you call it citizen journalism or the fact that any individual is, in and of themselves, a media outlet and has the ability to broadcast, no matter how big or small that influence is, I think is a complete sea change,” said Linda Boff, the CMO of GE.

Summit participants noted the departure from being able to drive the narrative of the brand, to now having to enter a dialogue with consumers about where products land in the broader state of the world.

“Now consumers are asking, ‘Who are you? What do you stand for? Why should I keep showing up for you?’” said Dara Treseder, the chief marketing officer at Autodesk. “I don't think consumers were really asking before, ‘Is this sustainable? Tell me, what is the impact on the environment?’ I think that's going to continue to be even more important as climate change takes center stage.”

“Consumers want us to have a point of view, and sometimes it gets really tricky because sometimes you belong in a conversation and sometimes a brand doesn't belong in a conversation,” said John Galloway, president and chief marketing officer at ZOA Energy. “These days, it's taking a side. And 20 years ago, you didn't have to.”

Michelle Crossan-Matos, the chief marketing, citizenship and communications officer for Samsung Electronics America, agreed, describing CMOs as advocates for cultural change. “We're responsible for changing things so the world's a better place,” she said. “Twenty years ago, we were thinking about packaging and thinking about growing market share, but now, actually the kids are relying on us to make change.”

The chief marketing officer role has dramatically evolved, as many organizations have embraced the deeper impact a CMO can have on all facets of business. CMOs are expected to create novel ways to promote multiple key areas of business including sustainability, diversity and inclusion, mission and values. The skills needed to accomplish all objectives, during the technology era and for an increasingly fast-moving audience, have expanded the parameters of who might best fit the role. For example, as thought leadership and content have become more prevalent across marketing, we’re seeing ex-journalists, people who run blogs and former TV news producers hired for key positions.

MetLife CMO Michael Roberts, a former opera singer who has been in marketing for about 10 years, offered his personal experience as perspective on the shifting skills and backgrounds of today’s marketers. “I've benefited from that blueprint changing,” he said. “While brand stewardship is an important part of any CMO’s role, when I joined MetLife last year, the charge was not ‘upper-funnel-focused.’ It was: How can marketing deliver impact to the business and drive revenue, and, as CMO, how are you going to do it?”

The summit also revealed interesting developments on internal culture in marketing teams, especially in tying the mission to a new set of values and an increase in DE&I awareness and impact.

“Do we remember the word ‘culture’ inside a company?” said Melissa Goldie, chief brand officer for Lane Bryant. “That wasn't a word we talked about before, not really.”

Denise Karkos, CMO of SiriusXM, added: “I was once on a panel, and I heard a woman talk about culture fit versus culture-add and it's stayed with me. The early days in my career were about me being a culture fit, me hiring culture fits. These homogenous teams that I was building were very comfortable for me, [until] this moment in time where I've evolved to know that I don't want people who are just like me, and it's served me well. Today seven of my eight direct reports are diverse. That's how you're going to really grow the business.”

Maryam Banikarim, former CMO of Nextdoor, described the disparity she experienced when she worked earlier in her career at Univision. “In those days, people didn't understand the Hispanic market opportunity,” she said. “It didn't matter what the reality was or what the numbers showed, multicultural consumers weren't seen as core to the business. This was true for digital groups in the early days too. Today an effective marketer has to fully understand and integrate all consumers and disciplines. That has been a big shift in the last 20 years.”

Purpose and transparency were also rarely discussed 20 years ago, but now are fundamental to steering modern-day marketing efforts.

“We have now in our arsenal the ability to be transparent about our craft,” Karkos said. “When I first started, it was lofty language and unclear goals and attribution. Now we just can bring full transparency to everything we're doing. That's bringing such respect, credibility and trust to the craft.”

Looking to the future, there was also a concern about the CMO talent pipeline. Is the next generation being trained adequately to be as multifaceted as needed to fill what has become a supersized CMO role? In fact, many of these executives no longer consider themselves “just CMOs.”

Banikarim described CMOs as orchestra conductors. “You have to have centers of excellence — a head of growth vs. head of insights vs. head of community — all with deep areas of expertise," she said. "And your job as CMO is not necessarily to be that expert in each area — rather you have to know enough to be able to pull everyone together to deliver value for your customers and growth for the business. While the tools in the business have changed, the underlying premise of what we're trying to do, which is connect to consumers, that hasn't changed. We're still in the business of storytelling, of connecting with consumers emotionally and in ways that are memorable and drive to action.”

Said Treseder: “I always say I'm a creative business leader first and I'm a marketer second. I think trying to build business leaders who have creativity at the forefront is going to be critical for the next generation of talent.”

Ultimately, the conversation led to something of an existential question that Barber-Miller posed: “does the CMO role exist in the future?”

“Many of us in the room have more than one core marketing responsibility, extending into chief customer officers, chief e-commerce officers,” Barber-Miller said.

The likely answer, most agreed, was that the CMO in the future will continue to evolve.

“When I think about the role of the CMO, do I think the role the CMO will exist in 20 years? Probably not in its in its current form,” said Jessica Spence, president of North America at Beam Suntory, where she was previously president of brands. “I've never done [just] a CMO role.

“Now, you must be a businessperson — you have to understand where the money comes from — but, ultimately, you're also going to be the only person who is bringing forward deep consumer understanding. That doesn't mean traditional insights, that means data, that means first-party relationships. You need to bring creativity to the table, and I think you have to bring brand craft. What that brand craft is will continue to constantly evolve.”