01/28/2015 10:57 am ET Updated Mar 30, 2015

The Myth of the CMO's Super-Short Shelf Life

CMO's today actually fare better. Why are people not quite getting that?

If you have ever had the privilege -- and the burden -- of repositioning a company, a product, or a service, no doubt you understand the greatest challenge: how the original positioning -- the "frame," in marketing speak -- must be subverted. Once the public settles in on how to regard a particular subject, it can be hard to shake.

And so it is true with one of the more interesting positioning challenges facing CMOs today: the positioning of the perceived value of the job in the C suite. Ask almost any business person today about the average shelf life of the CMO and they will say it is under two years. Not long ago, this was almost true. But in recent years, the shelf life has almost doubled. According to consulting firm Spencer Stuart -- which has been tracking the data for more than a decade -- CMO tenure is now holding steady at about 45 months, roughly the time span of a one-term U.S. president, rather than a one-term congressman. Not quite what it takes for many to get the job done, but long enough to provoke the question, what happened?

A view from the bridge

From where I sit -- the C suite of a tech company that actually has the mission of empowering the CMO -- there are at least three things standing in the way of broad market recognition of the new stats. The first is easy to understand: the super-short shelf life of the CMO was a fun story that corroborated what many other businesspeople thought about marketers: that they weren't worthy of a seat in the C suite. To some degree, this has long been how CEOs thought about marketers -- and the thing they do -- in general. The 19th-century retailer John Wanamaker is famously reported to have said, "half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half." Talk about an unshakable frame. Wanamaker's quip is still often cited in articles questioning the value of advertising today.

And while the compelling yet misleading narrative about advertising persists, a more interesting narrative about its practitioners has been obscured. In a 2012 article titled, "From Mad Man to Superwoman" -- which closely examined the Spencer Stuart data and other studies -- a team of Deloitte marketing consultants mapped the evolution of the CMO. Over the years, many of the talents that were tapped to do the tough work of marketing slowly migrated from the outside (i.e., the mad men at ad agencies) to the inside (marketing executives with teams of specialists in different subject matter areas). As this happened, the top marketers inside the Fortune 500 began to resemble their MBA peers. In fact, many were MBAs, as comfortable with numbers as they were with creative, natives of two worlds that were fast merging.

The rise to the "top"

And here's where the story gets really interesting: the "numbers" that drive 21st-century marketing are not distinct from creative. Increasingly, they are about creative. As the Deloitte team concluded, one of the most important moments in the rise of the CMO was when the data produced from the digitization of marketing became available to marketers. Slowly, business people began understanding that not only should you be able to know what money you are wasting, but on which channels, which screens, and which content. With the recent advances in data management platform (DMP) technology, the new standard for marketing is the complete view of the customer across all screens. It's been promised since the dawn of digital, but it is in fact now coming true. But it is only when it becomes more widely known that the myth of the shelf life of the CMO might be subverted by a new narrative: how the CMO assumed leadership as the chief customer officer, by winning a place in the company that serves the top line, rather than draining the bottom.

This more recent rise to the "top" is certainly newsworthy, and already people are asking that the CMO job titled be revised. I think it may be a bit early for that. But in the meantime, I think we can safely bet that the myth of the weak CMO has a shelf life, too.