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Eight challenges facing CMOs in 2021

The skill sets, traits and mindset that a great Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) or senior marketing professional embodies are among the most complex in the C-suite. We look through the greatest assets of a world-class CMO, and how they interplay to become far more than the sum of their individual parts.

By: Dami Soile


The role of a CMO (Chief Marketing Officer) has evolved a lot over the years, becoming ever-more complex and challenging. The core skills of a CMO might be based around the principles of marketing and understanding customer behaviour, but increasing responsibility for enterprise P&L, internal culture, technological adoption, strategic thinking and leadership arguably make the role the most difficult in the whole C-suite. Let us explain…

1. A CMO needs customer expertise throughout the stack

Much of marketers’ work is focused on raising people’s awareness of a brand, its products, and its goals or ethos. In truth, most types of brand and product video help boost awareness, but certain formats are ideal for the job.

First, the bad news – merely having a brilliant product doesn’t necessarily equal business success in 2021. That product needs to be perfectly positioned and differentiated within its niche, as well as fully supported throughout the purchasing cycle. The good news is that a world-class CMO will have the background to understand the value of a good customer experience, the ability to quantify it, and the creativity to improve it in measurable ways. 

By identifying customer pain points, a CMO can genuinely empathise with customer frustrations, using that knowledge to offer viable solutions. This depth of understanding isn’t quick or easy to gain, but it is a key factor in delivering an enhanced customer experience. It’s also vital for spotting developing trends in the marketplace, identifying product/functionality gaps and for spotting early leads on new customer behaviours.  

2. Collaboration needs to be second nature

For the CMO of today and tomorrow, collaboration should be second nature. While this is a skill that almost all employees need, we need to recognise that the top marketing roles are no longer as siloed as they might have been just a few years ago. The ability to understand the other board-level roles, their remits, and how they all intertwine is no longer a ‘nice to have’ skill or a ‘learning on the job’ situation. A good CMO’s influence will stretch across all the key decision makers in a business, and that’s irrespective of business market cap. 

3. CMOs must be strategic players and futurologists

A strong CMO will have a great strategic brain. This is something that’s uniquely important in marketing roles, as the CMO needs to be able to create, understand and translate high-level strategy both internally and externally. In fact, the ability to create and sculpt a long-term vision –  one that marries business imperatives and growth with a clear assessment of current market forces and emerging trends – is no small achievement. But it’s very much all in a day’s work for a good CMO. As we see it, an excellent CMO will also be gazing into the crystal ball, predicting how those trends visible in the market today will feed into the successful strategy of tomorrow.

4. Creative experience is essential

Any good CMO needs to have a solid creative background, so they can relate to the role and the people in their team. But adaptive and out-of-the-box thinking is arguably just as important. A recent survey of 300 marketing professionals found that 41% originally chose their career to satisfy their passion for being creative. The best CMOs will be not only able to harness their creative abilities to innovate, but also to use their extensive experience of creative solutions to best effect. In today’s highly disrupted economic marketplace, the CMO must own the ‘pivot’, seeing opportunity where others see chaos.

There are legions of recent examples here, from local restaurants switching to takeaway and ‘DIY experience boxes’ as a result of the pandemic, to the warning tale of the high street retail giants now fallen to their online-only competitors. Thinking creatively in response to market conditions is now a vital survival skill for CMOs, where the rewards can be huge (remember when Amazon only sold books?) and the price of failure substantial too.   

What about DAMs, PAMs and MAMs?

DAM, PAM and MAM are three acronyms, which may be casually referenced in your office, with the assumption that everybody knows not just what they mean, but what the differences are. So, what are the finer points?

5. The CMO role is increasingly technical and engineering-focused

If less is more when it comes to creativity, the modern CMO must have more technical expertise than ever before. Keeping up with the Jones’ in terms of industry best practices and bleeding edge technical ideas is one thing, but that is literally the tip of the iceberg. A good CMO will be able to understand how the wider business operates, what IT’s existing systems and processes can (and can’t do), and be able spot where there are opportunities for technology to improve and automate outdated workflows.

A complete knowledge of the full Marcoms tech stack is vital here, as is having a solid foundation in the key differences between major technology platforms and their interdependencies. Indeed, many in Marcoms argue that the role of the CMO in larger organisations will become increasingly technical and engineering-focused, due to the demands of delivering a rounded digital vision throughout 2021 and beyond.

Alongside the CTO and CSO, a good CMO also needs to play a strong analytics game. As technical requirements increase, so a CMO needs the ability to interrogate multiple reporting dashboards and derive actionable insights from them. After all, we live in a data-driven world. The secrets to success lie hidden in the numbers.

Building on this, the ability to analyse internal and external processes for wastage is key, as is the ability to use ‘lean’-type methodologies to test new ideas with the minimum of risk and maximum data yield and/or validated learning. The new breed of AI-powered, predictive analytics tools is enabling businesses to achieve impressive success rates. But knowing which tools to use, where, and what conclusions to draw from the results is vital – and extremely valuable.

6. A CMO mustn’t forget the day job – delivering ROI

While all the C-Suite roles have a substantial responsibility for driving ROI, a CMO has a diverse and potent toolbox to play with. However, remaining commercially-minded throughout such a wide range of technologies, assets and resources isn’t easy. In addition, in highly competitive, saturated markets, speed of response to changing customer needs is crucial. 

A good example of this is in asset management, where technology such as a digital asset management system (DAM) can either be a facilitator or a bottleneck to delivering quality content. An efficient system will boost collaboration and ease of use. But an outdated DAM can invisibly soak up hundreds of man-hours in wasted time searching for creative assets or bog employees down in repetitive and cumbersome uploading tasks 

7. But CMOs also need to prioritise brand management

Any senior role should be keenly aware of the value of the brand, but few really know the fine details as well as a good CMO. From the knowledge that a huge slice of corporate equity is tied up in the brand – more than 30 per cent in some cases – through to the actual nuts and bolts of reinforcing and delivering that vision, it is a complex task.

To reinforce this point, a recent Gartner survey found that 33 percent of CMOs now rank brand strategy as one of the top three strategic priorities. That’s a substantial change from 2019, where brand strategy had a “lowly position near the bottom of the list” and the first time it has “has surpassed other capabilities like analytics, personalisation and marketing technology (martech).”

8. A CMO must have strong communication skills 

Let’s not forget that an effective CMO also needs to be able to communicate internally and externally, although there are many facets to this apparently simple skill. As already mentioned, there’s a requirement for a CMO to collaborate across business functions and traditional silos effectively. But he or she must also be able to lead their team with confidence. Managing a successful team, as well as monitoring the business P&L and strategically formulating outbound communication, is no small task. It’s one that requires strong leadership skills and impeccable communication. 

Equipping CMOs for success

Overall, the role of the CMO is one of the most demanding roles around. It requires a candidate to be strategically-minded yet endlessly adaptable, with the experience to lead from the front but the ability to listen to their team, the sensibility to harness their creativity and find innovative solutions as well as being savvy enough to embrace new ideas and technologies. The right CMO will be able to upshift a marketing team from ‘good’ to ‘great’, enhancing the business brand and boosting value. It’s one of the most important hires you can make and arguably the most fulfilling role on the board. 

At Imagen, we are uniquely placed to understand the challenges that marketing and creative teams face. We understand that, as the number of marketing channels and technology available to marketers grows, the demand for content grows and it becomes harder to manage. That’s why we created Imagen Go, a smart, AI-powered platform that enables teams to collaborate more efficiently, manage assets more effectively and spend more time being creative.

Want to drive down costs and skirt production roadblocks for your marketing and creative teams? Discover how we support easy collaboration and unlock creative growth – Discover Imagen Go.

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