In a matter of weeks, the high-profile communications leaders at GE, Home Depot, McDonald’s, and Prudential Financial have all said they’re planning to retire.
It’s more than just a coincidence. Some tell PRWeek that their departures are taking place as the CCO role is being re-evaluated, including what responsibilities it should include, how closely aligned it should be with other members of the C-suite, and how the comms department should be situated internally.
"The role will not only change – it has changed," says Bob DeFillippo, who recently retired from Prudential Financial after 20 years as CCO. His former employer merged communications and marketing under advertising leader Colin McConnell, who is using the title of chief brand officer.
DeFillippo says Prudential Financial is trying to address the challenges of media convergence, but he cautions the answer "isn’t an organizational one."
"Our industry has seen this trend before – departments merge, but then they get decentralized again later. It happens over and over again," says DeFillippo, an adjunct professor at New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. "It is not a new phenomenon."
Arthur W. Page Society president Roger Bolton says "there is a lot of discussion right now about the CCO’s role in relation to marketing and communications convergence, and there is a lot of substance behind that because those two areas are becoming so closely intertwined."
He says the trend is due in large part to the growing importance of corporate responsibility relative to product attributes and pricing. Digital and social have also blurred the lines among paid, earned, and owned media.
"We see companies experimenting with different things. In some cases, they are combining the two departments and putting one person – either the CCO or CMO – in charge," explains Bolton. "At CPG companies such as Procter & Gamble, CMOs have ascended whereas CCOs have ascended more often at b-to-b and more regulated companies."
However, Bolton shoots down the theory that the trend will go decidedly in either the direction of marketing or communications.
"I don’t think we’ll see a trend toward one or the other. CEOs wants someone who gets it and can run the two functions for them," he adds. "It is OK for each company to have its own approach as long as they understand that marketing and comms have two fundamentally different purposes. That has to be honoured even while the two are being closely coordinated."
The CCO role requires new skills
Corporations are no doubt shifting executive roles in response to the changing media environment, yet many communications leaders are bullish about their roles.
Jon Iwata, SVP of marketing and communications at IBM, says the future of the CCO position is very promising "as long as we step up to the requirements of the changing profession."
At the Arthur W. Page Society’s The Indispensable CCO spring seminar event on Thursday, he shared initial findings of the organization’s research into how the role has evolved and will continue to change in the years ahead.
It has gleaned data from an online discussion with more than 200 comms leaders on the topic – which generated 38,000 words of findings. The organization has also conducted interviews with CEOs, HR heads, CMOs, CIOs, and executive recruiters.
The Page Society will publish a report of all its findings in June, Iwata adds.
One thing it wants to answer is which member of the C-suite the CCO has spent the most time with in the last five years. Despite all the talk of more interaction between chief communications officers and their counterparts in marketing, "the number one increase was with the CIO, which I thought was remarkable," says Iwata.
That finding was consistent with the rest of the research.
"We found CCOs are shifting their investments into social media and owned media, and are building digital systems to engage audience inside and outside of the company. Second, we also found they are creating entirely new job roles with new titles within their departments and many of them are digital in nature," he continues. "They include things such as influencer engagement leader, digital strategist, integration manager, content and engagement designer, and even behavioral scientist."
Iwata, who was previously SVP of communications at IBM, notes that the study mirrors what is happening within his own company.
"Investments are definitely shifting toward more digital methods of communicating, and therefore I see skill gaps in myself and my team in terms of data measurement and digital," he explains. "I do see myself spending more time with the CIO. I also see myself more of an integrator inside of IBM across adjacent teams and departments, and find myself leading and getting different skills from my agency partners."
"I’m not an outlier here," he adds.
Another marked shift is that the ability to collaborate with human resources is more important, believes Gary Sheffer, chairman of Arthur W. Page Society and outgoing VP of corporate communications and public affairs at GE.
"The CCO of today has more of a cultural role," he explains. "Comms people are much more actively involved as a shaper, influencer, and partner on culture with HR and other members of the C-suite than when I joined GE in the late 1990s. It is not just about talking about culture, but also understanding what motivates people in their jobs, how they view the company, and how the avocations in their own life match that of the organization."
Still, he views the relationship between CCOs and CMOs as critical to business success.
"The CCO-CMO relationship can be really powerful, because it helps the company cultivate a deeper and more meaningful set of conversations with customers, employees, regulators, and influencers," he says.
"I understand customers better because I worked with the CMO, and the CMO understands reputational issues and public policy in their decision making because they have a good relationship with the CCO," he says.