CMO Tenure: Slip, Slidin’ Away?

Average CMO tenure has been on the rise for a decade—until now, according to Spencer Stuart’s newly released study. Here’s what CMOs should be thinking about lest we be at the start of a slide back to the early 2000s, when CMOs were told to pack up barely two years on the job.

CMO Tenure: Slip, Slidin’ Away?

Landing a CMO gig at a major brand is both good news and bad news: In all likelihood, the CMO would arrive to great fanfare and huzzahs, but then, within a couple of years—justly or not—he or she gets shown the door.

A recent case in point: When Sprint tapped Roger Solé as CMO in December, it was the third time in less than 18 months that the telecom giant brought in a new marketing chief.

Fortunately, such fast turnover is less the norm now: In 2015, average CMO tenure was 44 months, according to Spencer Stuart’s newly released 12th annual study. Still, that’s down from 48 months in 2014—marking the first decline since 2006. Median tenure is also down, from 35.5 months in 2014 to 26.5 in 2015, according to the study.

Does all of this mean we’re at the start of a gradual slide back to the early 2000s, when flipping CMOs after 18 or 24 months was considered the norm? And what can marketers do to make sure that doesn’t happen?

Rachel McClary, VP of global marketing at software maker Diebold, told that last year’s decline in CMO tenure is a sign of the accelerating pace of change now confronting brand marketers. She cited another research point from the CMO tenure study: Last year, 73% of the new CMOs placed were first-time CMOs.

“The number of first-time CMOs tells me that companies are not as interested in tenure and experience at the CMO level [and] instead are more interested in a fresh perspective and new approaches that a previous CMO might not bring to the table,” said McClary, who joined Diebold in 2014. “I would expect CMO tenure to decline as top companies increase their expectations of marketing’s contribution to their transformative success.”

Other senior marketing executives said that, despite the drop in 2015, the long-term outlook regarding CMO tenure remains encouraging.

“We’re definitely on an extended positive trend because we’re getting a better caliber CMO,” said Tom O’Toole, senior VP and CMO of United Airlines, who joined the company as CMO in 2010, then after a few role changes following the United Airlines-Continental merger in late 2010, became United’s CMO again in early 2015. “You have a more well-rounded, more multidimensional CMO, with stronger business acumen and stronger performance, and that equals greater longevity.”

Joe Tripodi, who took charge as global CMO of Subway in late 2015 after serving for seven years as Coca-Cola’s chief marketing and commercial officer, stressed that companies tapping more digitally fluent executives for the CMO role is contributing to longer tenures. What’s more, he told, a deeper understanding among CFOs about the impact of the marketing function has contributed to a longer shelf life among CMOs overall.

“My sense is CMO tenure will get longer, but you don’t want the tenure to be too long. You have to balance the need for near-term results with the need for longer-term stability in the marketing leadership role,” Tripodi said. “You need to allow the time for a CMO to impact a broader number of consumer touch points other than just communications, such as product development, customer experience, and digital.”

Spencer Stuart senior partner Greg Welch, who initiated the company’s first CMO tenure study in 2004, agreed.

“Aside from continuing to find ways to connect with the customer, both new and veteran CMOs must also deliver differentiated customer experiences, demonstrate the value of marketing to the broader organization, and determine which digital platforms best align with their marketing strategy,” he told “Today’s top CMOs understand these demands and recognize they are in a great position from which to lead.”

The CFO Connection

CFOs and CMOs, no doubt, are starting to develop a better rapport, which can’t hurt prospects for longer CMO tenures. But to build on their longevity, marketers’ need to harness online analytics for more revenue-generating marketing campaigns and speak in language the C-suite appreciates. “Patience with the CMO is a function of patience with the company’s overall performance,” United’s O’Toole told

When marketers explain ROI to their CFOs, the challenge is not to get bogged down by every last detail and, instead, show how their actions can directly align with their company’s financial goals and/or objectives.

For example, United’s marketing department developed e-commerce tools that enable the company to change prices of particular travel options based on changing demand, rather than having a single, set price for each product or service, according to O’Toole.

“The CFO needn’t understand all the arcane details of the dynamic analytics but cares about the outcome that the pricing optimization resulted in revenue growth,” O’Toole said. “This is what the C-suite requires for marketers to be effective in their jobs.”

Marketers also have to learn how to cut to the chase when they justify how their social media programming drives corporate revenue.

“Measures based on ‘likes’ and ‘views’ tend to be irrelevant to a majority of business people outside of marketing,” said Liz Miller, senior VP of marketing at the CMO Council, in an interview with “Showing a campaign increased Facebook followers for a CFO just doesn’t make sense. For today’s CMO, it has to be more like, ‘We got 1 million new followers and, among those followers, 40% moved through the pipeline, boosting the bottom line by x% and lowering costs by y%’ in order to show the value of marketing to the company.”

Data As Destiny

For a growing number of senior marketing executives, the road to longevity is paved with online analytics. The ability to make data-informed decisions was cited as the most important method of executing on marketers’ new role of driving business growth (83%), according to a 2015 report released last October by the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), McKinsey & Co., and GfK.

The report, which is based on interviews with 384 client-side marketers, showed a marked increase in concern among marketers for competitive forces and a sharper focus on key metrics of the business, such as growth, CRM, and loyalty.

The analytics/capabilities to measure marketing effectiveness/ROI was the second most important strategy to drive business growth (80%), followed by analytics/capabilities to understand customer behavior (78%), and developing content and experiences across the customer journey (78%), the survey said.

Bob Liodice, president-CEO of the ANA, which represents 700-plus companies and organizations that own 10,000 brands, said that a key ingredient for CMO longevity is recruiting new talent, where many brands may be falling short.

“I see very little in terms of comprehensive strategies for acquiring better talent,” he told “[New talent is] the key to consistently driving business outcomes. Having a well-trained staff is fundamental to navigate the complex and hard-to-navigate waters of digital. We need to upgrade our talent coming out of universities while substantially investing in training and development for existing marketers.”

According to the ANA survey, 77% of marketers said they believe hiring new talent is an effective strategy for managing disruption. Sixty-percent of the respondents also said changing organizational culture in response to marketing disruption was very important.

“Good CMOs are change agents,” said Jake Sorofman, VP and chief of research at Gartner for Marketing Leaders. “They’re now expected to change mindsets as they also develop skill sets and tool sets for execution.”

With CMOs now more accountable to the C-suite and higher expectations for transformational change, “There’s both more patience and more urgency,” Sorofman added. “Patience because the magnitude of their responsibility has grown, but also urgency to impact short-term business results.”

According to Diebold’s McClary, CMOs can ease the pressure to demonstrate business results quickly by increasingly letting KPIs—rather than marketing metrics—inform the marketing strategy, and then keeping the C-suite abreast.

“You have to establish credibility as someone who can understand what a P+L looks like and articulate how you can contribute in terms that [senior managers] can appreciate,” she said. “A direct correlation exists with the tenure of a CMO and his ability to quantify the value of his organization to key stakeholders, like the CFO. Strong relationships, grounded in fact-based numbers and metrics that the CFO can get behind and support, can go a long way.”

‘Presidential’ Aspirations

Whether it’s crunching the data (and singing Kumbaya with the CIO), sniffing out new talent, or enabling digital commerce, CMOs—whether veteran marketers or newly minted—must deal with a growing agenda. It’s a right-brain/left-brain world, where marketers must develop a delicate balance between the art and the science. And expectations from the C-suite have seldom been greater, Spencer Stuart’s Welch said.

Combined with market forces that seem to move at warp speed, perhaps the right amount of CMO tenure translates to roughly the span of two U.S. presidential terms.

“The CMO tenure should be in a range of five to seven years, 10 years the absolute max,” Subway’s Tripodi said. “When you consider the nature of consumer engagement and the ongoing disruption in the marketplace, about five to seven years is about right in order for marketers to find new ways to stay ahead of the power and learning curve.”

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