19 strategies CMOs can use to take charge, adapt faster, and optimize the metrics that matter
The typical CMO tenure is half that of the CEO— 3.6 years compared to 7.2 years. One of the reasons we’ve seen Chief Marketers struggle for decades is that they don’t get a full mandate to disrupt. Without it, they adapt too slowly and they can’t shift the metrics that matter.
Armed with more customer data and tools than ever before, it’s time for the new generation of Chief Marketers to step up and show how marketing can drive both immediate results and long-term, sustainable growth. But how?
Based on my own experience at Facebook, Intel, WPP, and several startups, as well as over 50 conversations I’ve had with industry experts and some of the world’s best marketers, here are the plays that Disruptor CMOs are making to build high-performance teams and get long-term results.
1. Get the CEO Mandate to Disrupt
CEOs want to build a customer-first company, and they need a strong marketing leader who can stand their ground with the Board and the C-suite — especially Sales, Product, and Finance.
The number one responsibility of a CMO is always to view the world from the outside-in, through the eyes of the customers, especially if everybody else is obsessed with fighting internal fires.
Everybody thinks more marketing is a great idea—until it requires them to give up resources today to prioritize longer-term goals for tomorrow.
The most successful CMOs get a clear mandate to assume this responsibility explicitly and relentlessly. When times get tough, they know the CEO will have their back.
Before accepting an offer, a CMO must spend enough time with the CEO to understand the toughest issues, lay out an ambitious change program, and ask themselves:
Will this company have the organizational patience to see through what needs to be done?
For more, read Kimberly Whitler’s HBR’s article “The Trouble with CMO’s”.
2. Start With Why
Great companies and brands learn to express their purpose, and it’s the CMO’s job to help find it and unlock its full potential.
The purpose defines how the company shows up internally with employees, and externally with customers. It is the ‘Why’ you exist, beyond just making a profit or driving shareholder value.
Talented people prefer to work for companies with a clear purpose.
Unilever’s former CEO Paul Polman put it best:
“Passion is when you find yourself. Purpose is when you lose yourself.”
I spent my early marketing years working on brand strategy with Unilever to help them find their brands’ purpose. My client then was Alan Jope, now Paul Polman’s successor as CEO, and I was deeply impressed by his commitment to the true purpose of the Dove personal care brand — to celebrate real, authentic beauty.
Before shooting Dove TV ads, we would screen and film hundreds of real users talking about how using Dove made them feel, in search of the most authentic stories.
Over time, the brand evolved to pioneer purposeful marketing (despite controversy and several missteps) as described in this Huffington Post article:
…the Campaign For Real Beauty is one of modern marketing’s most talked-about success stories. The campaign has expanded from billboards to television ads and online videos: The 2006 video, “Evolution,” went viral before “viral” was even a thing. (After all, YouTube had only launched the year before.) And Dove’s 2013 spot “Real Beauty Sketches,” which shows women describing their appearances to a forensic sketch artist, became the most-watched video ad of all time.
The Dove Self-Esteem Project delivers self-esteem education to young people through lessons in schools, workshops for youth groups, and online resources for parents, reaching over 20 million young people across 139 countries.
The aim is to make beauty a source of confidence, not anxiety.
Marketing with purpose also makes good business sense: Unilever’s data shows that their portfolio brands with a ‘Why’ have grown 2x faster than those without.
3. Reframe the Category
The first marketing book I read was Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind and I was hooked for life.
I learned a simple business truth — being the category leader is everything, and if a strong competitor is already positioned as number one, you should reframe a new category where you can be king.
A study by HBR found that the 13 companies in the Fortune 100 that were instrumental in creating their categories accounted for 53% of incremental revenue growth and 74% of incremental market cap growth.
For example, Tesla created, and now dominates, the market for luxury, long-range electric cars, and they have shown both aesthetic and performance leadership. I’m no gearhead, but even I can get excited by the idea of the Tesla Model X beating an Alfa Romeo 4C in a drag race… while towing another Alfa Romeo on a trailer!
Peter Thiel refreshed the idea for startups recently in his insightful Zero to One, inviting founders to look for fresh territory to create new monopolies. Direct competition drains value, while differentiation creates value as companies charge more and compete less.
The CMO must bring the vision to reframe the category and lead the company to a leadership position in the market.
4. Accelerate the Flywheel
Strong companies are powered by a flywheel effect — positive feedback loops that build momentum, increasing the payoff of incremental effort—and the CMO must define precisely how marketing will accelerate it.
Jim Collins first described the metaphor inGood to Great: a flywheel is a heavy wheel that takes huge effort to push. Keep pushing and the flywheel builds momentum, and eventually it starts to generate its own momentum and helps turn itself.
Amazon patiently adopted and perfected the concept to build a trillion dollar company.
The CMO must fully understand why and how their flywheel works, and then apply focused marketing tactics to accelerate momentum:
Where can the least effort make the most impact?
For example, one year Amazon’s priority might be to increase choice and variety by attracting third-party sellers. Marketing should focus there. The following year, Amazon’s highest priority might be ramping customer visits to keep the sellers motivated, so marketing should shift focus.
One flywheel, with many points of leverage to keep it turning.
5. Reset With Sales and Product
There’s always friction between marketing, sales, and product teams, usually caused by lack of understanding, communication, and goal alignment.
Disagreement is fine and healthy. In fact, at Intel, it was explicitly encoded in the culture, with signs on the walls saying, “We meet to commit, not to agree.” I can still remember being (happily) shocked when my boss Rob DeLine first used the phrase, “OK, I disagree and commit,” to end a debate with me and move on.
But companies can’t afford sustained friction, because the buyer is now in control, with more choices to compare or leave, and more access to information.
Marketing must know sales, sales must know marketing, and both must know the customers.
The CMO must reset expectations and align around lead definitions and scoring, Service-Level Agreements (SLAs), and a shared Revenue Funnel.
Having sales and marketing within the same organization can help greatly, as does having product marketing sitting within marketing. I’m not a fan of the word Smarketing, but I applaud leaders like Stephen Burton and others for pioneering it and sharing their insights publicly.
But there’s also a risk. Often when sales and marketing are combined, the result is more focus on hitting short-term sales numbers, and not enough investment to drive the long-term brand metrics that are often harder to measure.
6. Sign Up for Metrics That Matter
CMOs must deliver the metrics that matter to CEOs. It’s a dangerous game to only focus on the soft marketing KPIs your team can safely hit, at the risk of ignoring the hard outcome metrics the CEO is focused on.
Irrelevance is death.
Hubspot put together a useful cheat sheet with recommended metrics and benchmarks:
One note — LTV calculations can be misleading, especially when companies mistake this simple tool for a strategy, as outlined in Bill Gurley’s classic essay, “The Dangerous Seduction of the Lifetime Value (LTV) Formula”:
The fundamental reason that it is so amazingly dangerous and seductive is its simplicity and certainty. Generic marketing is conceptual. LTV marketing is specific. Building a plan to grow to a million users organically is an order of magnitude more difficult than doing it with the aid of the LTV formula.
Another thing to watch out for: sales and marketing data needs to match up before it ever gets communicated to the CEO or finance, otherwise everyone gets frustrated fast.
Perhaps the most defining question to answer is:
What does the CEO’s dashboard look like, and which three to four marketing metrics should you as CMO be updating on it?
Signing up for metrics that matter is important, but successful CMOs also learn to speak full ‘CEO Math’.
There’s a suspicion that marketing is a softer, fluffier discipline, so it’s worth overcoming this perception by leaning into discussions around ROA, ROE, P/E ratios, Debt-to-Equity and various flavors of profitability.
CMOs don’t need to be accountable for these metrics, but they must understand how their work impacts them.
7. Make Customer Voice the Loudest
Marketing’s access to both existing and potential customers should be a source of great power within the company.
CMOs must hire strong insights and analytics teams, find new ways to get everybody directly meeting and listening to users, and translate insights into great product roadmaps and marketing campaigns.
Example: When Gary Briggs became Facebook’s first CMO, he understood this well from his experience at Google, eBay, and Pepsi. He hired John Fernandes and Didi Huang to build out a 100+ person Insights and Analytics team, which often spent time sharing fresh customer insights directly in the ‘fishbowl’ office with Mark Zuckerberg.
80% of companies think they are providing a great experience, while only 8% of customers agree, and losing a customer is up to 25 times more costly than retaining them.
Customer-obsessed companies like Amazon, Harley-Davidson, and Disney consistently outperform their competitors, and the CMO can drive this culture by making the voice of the user the loudest.
All the data and tools exist now to make this a daily habit, as laid out in this Qualtrics eye-chart:
For more, start with this Qualtrics ebook that outlines 16 ways to capitalize on customer insights.
8. Attract Fearless “T-shaped Talent”
CMOs succeed by attracting world-class talent and creating a home where they can do the best work of their careers.
Companies and purpose are important, but true marketers, like engineers, want to join a fearless team doing famous work together, and you have to create that home for them.
The sheer complexity of the marketing discipline demands a new kind of talent profile — the ‘Jack of all trades, master of ONE’— aka the T-shaped Marketer.
For example, looking back at my own T-shaped career, I still worry that I changed tack too often and didn’t specialize enough.
But as Steve Jobs said:
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”
Certainly, looking back, I’ve led several functional teams — brand strategy, insights, media, PR, digital marketing — and developed a far richer understanding of the overall art of marketing.
The best CMOs unite people who have a detailed knowledge of their own specialty, but also bring extra skills and have a broader interest in the entire marketing mix.
T-shapers respect and learn from their peers’ depth, and the collaborative DNA of the group stimulates creativity.
For more on why teams of T-shaped Marketers work, read this thoughtful piece.
9. Restructure for Autonomy and Role Clarity
Structuring a modern marketing organization can get very complex very quickly.
You must navigate naming choices (demand gen vs growth?), sales/product team overlaps, regions, in-house vs agencies, title conventions, HR considerations, etc.
Successful reorgs optimize for both increased autonomy and role clarity, allowing valuable resources to become more productive.
Best practice is to start by prioritizing WHAT marketing must deliver (e.g. Revenue, Growth, Brand, etc) and only then map the HOW (e.g. PR, Content, Events, etc). Strategy, then execution.
Ideally, people wouldn’t get so attached to org structures — but unfortunately they do — so leaders must help people move on fast, with clear, lightweight communications and transparent Q&A.
I’ve tried to capture the core logic in this slide:
For more, start with this excellent Oracle/CMO Club pdf guide, including sample charts for B2B/Consumer orgs of different sizes.
10. Hire Growth Experts (Carefully)
Ask 100 people to define growth hacking, or growth marketing, and where it should sit in the org, and you’ll get 200 answers!
It’s a highly polarizing subject, with a lot of semantic debate, but one thing is clear — growth teams have helped ramp up Facebook, Twitter, Google, Uber, and dozens of other so-called unicorn businesses, and their tactics can be studied and replicated, though not always successfully.
As Andrew ‘Boz’ Bosworth explains, the best product doesn’t always win, the one everyone uses wins, hence the need for growth teams.
The CMO doesn’t need to be a growth hacker, but they do need a clear POV on how the tactics should be applied, and what belongs within the marketing org.
Initially, back around 2010–15, the focus was on ‘hacking’ with small, lean teams of marketers, developers, engineers and product managers driving low-cost customer acquisition.
But over time, the focus has shifted to growth marketing, with more focus on long-term sustainability. Mason Pelt describes it well:
“Growth hacking is about optimization as well as lead generation. Imagine your business is a bucket and your leads are water. You don’t want to pour water into a leaky bucket; it’s a waste of money. That’s why a true growth hacker would care about customer retention.”
In other words, first solve for fuel efficiency, then fill the tank.
My personal bias is that the growth marketing experts sit within the marketing org, but are deployed with a high degree of autonomy to work across the company on very specific business challenges, optimizing creatively and aggressively against a single metric.
When that’s fixed, everybody cheers and they move on to fix the next burst pipe!
11. Optimize AND Innovate
CMOs must have a clear idea about when to optimize and when to innovate, and blend the two modes together to create an optimal effect.
Andy Johns has laid out this logic comprehensively and with data in an excellent essay “A Balanced Approach to Growth” based on scaling Facebook, Twitter, Quora, and Wealthfront as President.
Optimization is when a company iterates on its existing products or services to squeeze more juice out of the orange, typically incremental in nature (e.g. 5–10% gains).
Innovation is when a company embarks on building entirely new products or services for existing customers or for a new segment of customers, leading to exponential gains (e.g. 2x–10x).
Like a balanced investment portfolio, companies need both, and must design the appropriate types of tests for their stage.
Smaller startups can’t test like big companies because of sample size limitations, and they need big jumps. They must test big changes to their product in order to manage sample size limitations.
Also, the bottom half of a funnel is often a better place to test than the top half of a funnel because obtaining statistical significance on a high baseline conversion rate is more likely than on a low baseline conversion rate.
12. Invest in MarTech
A marketing technology stack is the group of technologies marketing uses to:
- Attract users
- Engage users
- Analyse and optimize investments
In 2018, it became the number one marketing budget line-item (29%) according to Gartner, and the CMO (not the CIO) needs to roll up their sleeves and get dirty with the data to invest in the right stack and talent to run it.
If done early and well, the right martech can pay for itself by reducing the need for headcount growth.
Some marketing teams organically adopt 50+ technologies, so smart consolidation is often needed.
For B2B companies, Account-Based Marketing (ABM) systems are top of the 2019 implementation list, offering valuable tools to align sales and marketing teams around the same data and funnel.
For more, start here with Intercom’s Ultimate guide to Martech Stacks and see a real example. Also spend time yourself reviewing the analysis based on 750k user reviews at www.G2.com. And if you’re proud of your new stack, you can even enter it for an award in the Stackies. Yup, that’s a thing.
13. Demand Bold Work
With new channels and more data and martech tools, it’s too easy to forget that strong, bold creative can still drive 10x performance deltas.
Most CEOs are more comfortable with numbers than ideas, so CMOs must use data to demonstrate the business value of strong creative.
But then they must both demand bold work from teams and agencies, and inspire trust by defending the ideas through to successful launch and beyond.
If agencies or in-house teams are still thinking TV-first, a CMO can insist on ‘no mobile, no meeting’, and demand to see ideas that leverage new targeting data to drive personalization at scale.
But ultimately, great mobile creative is just great creative, grounded in a powerful idea.
14. Storytelling AND Storydoing
As Ben Horowitz puts it:
“Companies that don’t have a clearly articulated story don’t have a clear and well thought-out strategy. The company story is the company strategy.”
The chief marketer also needs to be the chief storyteller, crafting a strong narrative arc and a detailed message architecture.
My former colleague Jayant Murty gives a great reminder about the need for authentic, believable stories:
“Storytelling is not just about your nice side, it’s about ‘your all-sides.’ There are parts of the story they may not like, but you can still tell them what you are doing about it. Every villain has a heroic streak and every hero has a villainous streak — that’s what makes for interesting stories and believable ones over time.”
But the data shows that today’s great companies must also become storydoers, showing up in the world and making a real difference.
Red Bull is an extraordinary example of a company in a low-interest energy drink category that replaces traditional advertising with storydoing, showing the Red Bull ethos by staging high-adrenaline sporting events and breaking through the barriers of human potential.
Red Bull now sells seven billion cans a year, roughly one for each human being on little-old-earth!
For more, read the book True Story, a classic HBR article “Good Companies are Storytellers. Great companies are storydoers,” but also a recent article in Fast Company underlining the need to back up purpose with action.
15. Prioritize 70–20–10
Great companies know how to preserve the core AND stimulate progress.
Disruptor CMOs often use the 70–20–10 framework to ensure teams prioritize both proven methods and tests for new growth opportunities.
For example, Coca-Cola uses a 70% Now, 20% New, 10% Next framework to prioritize content development. The 70% Now budget is expected to deliver predictable results; the 10% experimental budget assumes a higher risk/reward target.
The model can also be applied to product innovation and channel selection, especially important in light of Andrew Chen’s “Law of the Shitty Clickthroughs,” which states that over time, all marketing strategies result in lower returns.
The first banner ad ever, on HotWired in 1994, debuted with a clickthrough rate of 78%. Today, average CTRs are around 0.05%, a 1,500x decline!
Successful ‘10%’ experiments are valuable, but be wary of models extrapolated from marketing metrics done at a small scale, because these arbitrage opportunities disappear fast.
For more, read how marketers are using 70–20–10.
16. Study Marketplaces, Direct-to-Consumer (DTC), and SaaS Marketers
The most important recent marketing innovations have come from a new generation of digital native companies, and it’s essential to study the new breed of marketers from Marketplace, DTC, and SaaS companies.
This is where the real innovation is happening.
Starting with Marketplaces, according to seed and early-stage VC NFX, network effects have been responsible for 70% of all the value created in technology since 1994.
Think eBay, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, and dozens of others.
Marketers must understand how Marketplaces work, and there’s now no shortage of insightful theory and practical advice about how best to scale 2-sided and N-sided markets.
For example, in his classic essay “The Next 10 Years Are All About Market Networks,” five-time founder and NFX MD James Currier defines ‘Market Network’ to describe a new kind of market, with multiple participants, SaaS tools, with transactions at the center:
1) Market networks target more complex services. 2) People matter — complex services mean each client is unique and not interchangeable. 3) Collaboration happens around a project. 4) There’s unique profiles of people involved. 5) Long term relationships between participants. 6) Referrals flow freely. 7) Increases transaction velocity and satisfaction.
Not all network effects are the same, however, and understanding the nuances is essential for building network effects of your own into your products. To help, NFX has identified 13 different kinds of network effects.
Meanwhile, Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) companies like Dollar Shave Clubhave built and sold disruptive billion dollar CPG businesses in a few years, using Facebook ads, edgy videos, and subscription models.
More recently, Hims is now disrupting the Wellness industry by destigmatizing erectile disfunction and other sensitive medical issues, making telemedicine accessible and a fresh new creative approach.
Finally, B2B SaaS companies like Slack, Zoom, InVision, and Dropbox have shown that anybody with a superior product can now disrupt the classic IT sales playbook by getting bottoms-up traction with users, and exploiting workplace viral loops to scale up organically first, making the Enterprise sales conversation a whole lot easier.
In fact, arguably the Consumer vs Business tech marketing model has reversed, with consumer tech innovation being stifled by the larger FAANG companies, just as the SaaS API companies have blown open the Enterprise tech opportunity for whoever has the best product and smartest marketing.
SaaS companies are essentially financializing software: instead of selling software as a product with a sticker price, it sells the software as if it were a financial instrument, with a probabilistically forecastable cash flow.
This in turn has led to prolific marketing innovation, especially around LTV:CAC ratios, freemium and price bundling, building platforms, and lower funnel conversion tactics.
Big and small are collapsing. Big traditional companies are often just a collection of small brands and marketing units with limited budgets who must all learn to ‘act small’.
And in reverse, successful Marketplace, DTC and SaaS players grow fast and suddenly need to act big, and get their heads around the ROI of spending $5m+ on a 30-second Superbowl ad.
For some fun, check out Squatty Potty’s outrageously successful DTC films, watched over 100m times, with 5m+ potties sold!
17. Debrief Fast and Often
Working at Intel, it was mandatory to lead fast and frequent debriefs.
In that culture, you never made the same mistake twice because the second time you made it, it wasn’t a mistake, it was a choice. A bad choice.
By contrast, at Facebook, we moved fast, and we often broke things, but we rarely debriefed. As the company has grown it’s become an issue, and the culture is changing now.
A CMO should lead large project debriefs and use them to reward the growth mindset. Keep it lightweight and simple, focusing on four questions:
- What were our objectives?
- Where did we hit (or miss) them?
- What caused these results?
- What should we start, stop, or continue?
18. Build Diversity and Be an Ally
I had the privilege to sit on Sheryl Sandberg’s leadership team and learn how she and our Head of Diversity, Maxine Williams, interpreted diversity issues.
This included publishing an annual diversity report and implementing the diverse slate approach (DSA), which ensures that hiring managers will consider candidates from underrepresented backgrounds.
Like all great leaders, Sheryl understood that repetition never spoils the prayer, and as the company grew by a factor of ten, she never stopped repeating the same truth:
The best way to harness the positive potential of technology is to have more people in the room with different voices and different views.
It’s also good business. A study run by McKinsey examined 180 companies across four countries and found that diverse boards (defined as those including women and foreign nationals) perform better — generating 53 percent higher returns on equity than the companies in the bottom diversity quartile.
Given the external focus of marketing, CMOs especially must build diverse teams, but also go further to become an ally to everyone who needs it, and guide others to do the same. Valuable guidance can be found at the Guide to Allyship.
19. Grow Strengths
Through my career, I’ve been blessed with strong, caring managers. But in the earlier days, when managers gave feedback, they mainly focused on weaknesses, and what you should improve.
I definitely benefited from the advice.
But having tried it both ways as a manager, I’ve found that a strengths-based approach gets more consistent results.
The idea is simple:
People will grow strongest where they are already strong.
For example, Tiger Woods’ first coach said Tiger was number one driving a ball 400-yards down the fairway, but was #69 getting out of a sand bunker. But in practice they never focused on getting out of the traps; they kept the focus on his strength of driving down the fairways, and avoiding the bunkers altogether.
Marcus Buckingham describes the opportunity for managers:
“Identify a person’s strengths. Define outcomes that play to those strengths. Find a way to count, rate or rank those outcomes. And then let the person run.”
We must keep in mind what a strength actually is. The best culture coach I knew was Michael Ronglien at Facebook, who reminded us that there can be things you’re good at, but make you weaker, and there can be things you’re not good at yet, that give you energy and make you feel stronger. These are strengths.
I prefer to give performance reviews in reverse to my direct reports. In other words, “Here’s a few areas of improvement, but let’s spend our time focusing on the strengths you can leverage even more…”
Great CMOs hire rockstars and help them play on ever bigger stages.
For more, start with Marcus Buckingham’s “The Business Case for Strengths”. While on culture, also read Mike Ronglien’s excellent book This is Now Your Company.
There’s never been a more exciting or challenging time to be a CMO.
Many of the old lines are blurring between sales and marketing, B2C and B2B, art and science. Blurring breeds creativity.
I’m grateful to all the generous career marketing mentors I’ve had and the new ones I’m still discovering. I hope I can be as useful to others as they have been to me.
May these 19 ideas help you on your marketing journey.
Pick one and put it into action today.