PR firms targeted CMOs for years, only to see companies eliminate the role. Now what?

Agencies see opportunity amid complexity.

Photo credit: Getty images
Photo credit: Getty images

PR agencies have set their sights on the chief marketing officer as they’ve expanded out of their earned-media comfort zones and added capabilities in video production, data and analytics, social media and creative. However that target within the C-suite may not be the bull’s-eye it once was, given recent decisions by companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Uber and McDonald’s to eliminate the CMO position

Russ Klein, CEO of the American Marketing Association, notes that some responsibilities once held by the CMO have splintered off to other executives. One reason: the amount of marketing that is now driven by data and digital technology. 

"Only 40% of a corporation’s marketing-related activities today report to the CMO," Klein says, citing a study led by University of Texas professor Leigh McAlister, the former director of the university ’s Marketing Science Institute.

That means chief information and technology officers are getting more of the marketing pie. It’s also prompted the rise of the chief experience officer as companies try to adopt a design-led sensibility to marketing. The title usually goes to experts in a company who are devoted to product development and innovation and digital and customer loyalty, as well as digital and multichannel marketing. 

"Some companies even have both a CXO and CMO in place, but I don’t think that is a recipe for a cohesive strategy," Klein adds. "If someone is in the role of the CXO, I think she should also be responsible for all those traditional marketing activities, because they are all wrapped in the overall customer experience." 

That a CXO and CMO could be sitting side-by-side -- or alongside a chief communications officer, CIO and CTO -- speaks to a larger trend: responsibility for marcomms is no longer dictated by traditional titles, job descriptions or linear org charts. 

"Decision power is now having to be earned inside the organization, and so when I hear marketers complain that they don’t have decision rights on this or that, my advice to them is to stiffen up, get back in there and earn it," says Klein, who has served as CMO at Arby’s, Burger King and 7-Eleven. 

One brand that has dropped the CMO position is Johnson & Johnson, which spread the duties of recently departed marketing leader and former Coca-Cola executive Alison Lewis to leaders including Michael Sneed, the healthcare company’s EVP of global corporate affairs and chief communications officer. 

McDonald’s is another brand that plans to ask executives to absorb the CMO’s duties. After the resignation of Silvia Lagnado, the fast-food chain made two promotions, moving Bob Rupczynski to SVP of marketing technology. Before joining McDonald’s in 2017, Rupczynski was VP and global head of media, data and digital at Mondelez International, according to his LinkedIn account. Colin Mitchell was also upped to SVP of global marketing from VP of global brand.

While both McDonald’s and J&J are household names, Liz Miller, SVP of marketing at the CMO Council, says that reports of the CMO’s demise are completely overblown, noting that some have been promoted to a company’s top job, such as Brian Niccol at Chipotle or Stephen Cannon at Mercedes-Benz U.S.A. She contends that titles like chief brand officer or chief experience officer are nothing more than rebrandings of the CMO position, perhaps to signal to the rest of the company that the executive has the latitude to extend his or her influence into other parts of the business. 

"Today’s business doesn’t operate in lanes and has become so complex, so what I think we’re seeing is a natural evolutionary grind to figure out what to call the CMO role," says Miller, "because if you look at the job descriptions of some of these new titles, the overarching goals sound shockingly like a CMO." 

Communications leaders see opportunity in complexity
PR agencies that have emphasized their marketing chops in recent years are taking the changes in stride. 

"It’s something we’re watching, and I think frankly represents more opportunity for larger communications agencies," says Amanda Glasgow, global brand community chair at Edelman. "It’s well-reported that the average tenure of the CMO has been on the decline for a few years, but I’m not sure the elimination of the CMO has hit trend-level yet."

In cases where the CMO title is no more, she notes there are new corporate titles like chief innovation officer and chief growth officer.

"I believe this is a reflection of the broadening of marketing across seemingly infinite new channels for engagement and shopping (e.g. Instagram)," Glasgow says. "Marketing leaders are now expected to know more and do more. They’re being asked to do everything from drive digital engagement to foot traffic into stores to manage social media to consult on product innovation."

And she adds that PR agencies never abandoned the communications leader as their most important client. "The CCO has always been a primary target for us, from brand and product communications to crisis to mergers to employee experience, and will continue to be," says Glasgow. "Edelman has built a small army able to also answer the needs of those in the marketing organization. For us, it’s not a choice between them, it’s showing our clients the magic that can happen when companies think about marketing and communications in a more integrated and fluid way."

Michele Anderson, group MD and head of PR and influence at Ogilvy U.S.A., concurs that changes at Uber and McDonald’s reflect the rewriting of a CMO’s job description and the complexity of the marketing environment. 

"Not only is technology driving marketing automation, data analytics is able to customize and micro-target consumers like never before, and media proliferation is unabated, while brands are being held to a higher standard," she says. "There is no longer the expectation of privacy or walled gardens within corporates; the 'brand' becomes more than the consumer face of the organization, but everything that organization does and everyone that organization touches."

Anderson adds that the changes are an opportunity for chief communications officers "if they have strong digital chops and a healthy background in public affairs, issue and crisis management and the media."

In a recent interview, Ketchum global president and CEO Barri Rafferty spoke about the rise of brand-officer-like titles in corporations, which she sees as more than a rebrand of the CMO role. Instead, it is a hybrid of the CMO and chief communications officer duties, which means the person filling the position could come from either track. Rafferty also says that CMOs working more closely with CCOs is a positive development for the PR industry. 

"They are really working hand-in-hand, and I think there is more inter-respect for each other," she adds. "What I think is driving that is organizations seeing people sharing and engaging with earned and owned content and recognizing the value of it."

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