CMO Must Speak the Language of Business

Monika Krawiec- Zaworska, Chief Talent Officer at Publicis Groupe, talks to Paweł Baranowski, consultant at Egon Zehnder, a global management consulting and leadership recruitment firm.

Monika Krawiec: What challenges do you see for the CMO role in the current, ever-changing world of VUCA?

Paweł Baranowski: Changes in the business strategy, environment, vision of the CEO or COO make the CMO role one of the fastest changing key functions on the market. For a marketer, this means that he or she also has to transform, change, and reinvent themselves every now and then.

Staying in a place where you are comfortable and exploring knowledge while already familiar with the environment is of course evolving, but getting out of your comfort zone is when you learn the fastest. The range of experiences is increasingly important. Have you worked in consumer goods? Try marketing in a technology or retail company. Have you always been in Poland? Expand your perception and go abroad for a few years. Have you had a strong functional experience? It’s worthwhile for you to try a generalist role.

It’s also interesting to see the difference in how my clients who are going through digital transformation and the so-called “pure players” recruit and look at talent. The former still pay a lot of attention to competency and experience. They look for people who understand “legacy brands” and the new digital world. Pure players, on the other hand, are much more open-minded and look mainly through the prism of potential, which we at Egon Zehnder assess and define as curiosity, insight, engagement and determination to achieve goals.

MK: What competencies define an effective CMO today? How do they differ from the expectations placed on this role 10 years ago?

PB: First of all, an effective CMO must speak the language of the business. It is one of the most versatile functions. However, CEOs and colleagues in other functions have less patience for understanding campaign details and marketing metrics. They want to see how marketing activities impact company performance. Unfortunately, this is not a common skill among CMOs.

Functionally, the role of the CMO and their understanding of it is constantly changing. In recent years, there has been a very strong shift toward “performance marketing” and digital media. Today, however, I’m increasingly seeing companies return to the magic that creativity, storytelling and branding provide.

There is a strong functional specialization in marketing today. I think that in a few years this may result in a CMO succession problem, as we will lack generalists with a holistic view and understanding of marketing.

I think the CMO will increasingly play the role of the quarterback and the quality of their collaboration with other departments like sales and finance will be very important to business and career success. Marketing itself is no longer a silo.

MK: In your opinion, what is the foundation of an effective CMO – their broad education and continuous learning of new competences or maybe the experience of working in different companies, different industries. Or perhaps something else entirely? What tells you that you have met the best candidate for the CMO position?

PB: I think that the ability to learn and the willingness to develop are decisive here. Most marketing tools and channels didn’t exist when current CMOs started their careers, and I’m sure this world will continue to change. Additionally, the importance of data and the need for CMOs to make decisions based on it has grown tremendously. There is also a natural progression of digitization of marketing and soon most marketing budgets will be spent in digital media. However, a few aspects remain constant, such as consumer needs.

What can a CMO do to accelerate their growth? From the point of view of increasing your value in the market, it is often a very good choice to change a lateral move to, for example, another sector, function, country, continent. This is a dramatically different approach to managing your career as well. It’s not about managing a bigger budget and team all the time, but what can I learn in the next year? If not much, it’s time for a change. It’s worth remembering that a career rarely unfolds in a completely linear fashion. More often its course resembles mountains and plateaus, sometimes crossed by valleys. We should pay attention to what doors will open for us after each change.

MK: What image of the CMO’s role emerges from your conversations with CEOs? How do changing consumer expectations and behaviors define this role? What should the CMO actually do in an organization today?

PB: As I mentioned earlier, chief executives expect the CMO to speak to them in their language and through the lens of what marketing brings to the company. They expect a holistic understanding of the business from the CMO. The requirements themselves vary depending on the industry, its maturity, pressures from new digital players, strategy, etc.   

MK: Would you define the CMO role in the same way for the next few years?

PB: I think the CMO role may experience a renaissance in the coming years. I think in the future this function will be much more “data informed” (versus data driven) as well, perfectly blending elements of branding and performance marketing. I think we’ve come full circle so that new CMOs will be able to fulfill both aspects as needed. The best ones will be able to build a big engaging vision for their brands and products, while also being able to talk about performance campaigns and data lakes. I think “digital” will soon cease to be an additional sales or communication channel and become an indispensable competency and foundation for building marketing and CMO roles.

Another aspect here is the personal contribution of the CMO. We have moved somewhat away from “hands-off” management by process and pure team leadership. The personal insight, vision and contribution of the CMO is increasingly important, especially as young ambitious people are more likely to learn from someone like this and tend to stay with such an organization. Chief Executives Officers more often expect their CMO to both be able to fly high in the clouds and, when necessary, dive like an eagle into the details to ensure that all the i’s are dotted and all the t’s are crossed.

MK: How do you see the role of the “CMO of the future” in relation to other functions in the organization? How do you see the next natural step in the career of the “CMO of the future”?

PB: Every CMO at some point in their career makes a decision whether to stay on the same path or to develop in the direction of general management. In the latter case, broadening one’s experience, e.g. in sales, less often in finance, can significantly increase the chances of promotion.

From the point of view of the CMO’s role in the company, it depends in part on the context and environment, but to a large extent also on how effectively the person can influence his or her management colleagues and demonstrate the value of marketing. I firmly believe that CMOs themselves can shape their role and their perception of it.

MK: Thank you for the interview.

Paweł Baranowski, consultant at Egon Zehnder, contact: