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The CMO Complex: Why Ego Is The Enemy

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I’m not arrogant. I’m perfect.

That’s what far too many CMOs believe. Trust me. I’ve sat in boardrooms with CMOs who have truly viewed themselves as the second coming of Don Draper. And I get it…

There’s a lot of baggage and expectations that come with being a CMO (Chief Marketing Officer) in today’s world. We work in an industry where there’s awards given to people who do good work. Yep. That’s right… Golden awards. Silver platters. Tiny trophies…

For doing your job.

Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes the creative work being done is jaw dropping, breathtaking, brilliant, mind blowing and all in all spectacular. But it’s also spectacular, jaw dropping, breathtaking and brilliant when a CFO & CEO collaborate on an acquisition that changes the trajectory of a company.

But we’re not throwing parties and poppin’ champagne to celebrate the “Acquisition of the year”.

Marketing award shows on the other hand can be extravagant. And while these award shows have a role to play in positioning for agencies and even CMOs… The most overlooked bug that these events have is on the development of a CMO-complex.  In the book – Ego is the Enemy, the author, Ryan Holiday asks why is success often ephemeral rather than long lasting? He explains that..

Ego shortens it. Whether a collapse is dramatic or a slow erosion, it’s always possible and often unnecessary.  We stop learning, we stop listening, and we lose our grasp on what matters.  We become victims of ourselves and the competition.  Sobriety, open mindedness, organization, and purpose – these are the great stabilizers.  They balance out the ego and pride that comes with achievement and recognition.

Upon receiving an award, CMOs can quickly fall victim to believing they’re a once in a century creative genius. And thus… They stop growing. They stop learning. They stop innovating. They avoid embracing the humility required to thrive in an industry that changes SO quickly that it should be listed on every job posting that you MUST embrace a beginner’s mindset.

It’s not just CMOs with big creative budgets either… I see this with VPs, Directors, and Managers working in verticals ranging from creative advertising and web design to SEO & Digital PR.

The CMO role is just the final destination for most marketers looking to climb the ranks. Or at least… It used to be. Now we’re seeing the unbundling of the CMO into new roles like Chief Growth Officer, Chief Revenue Officer, Chief Digital Officer, Chief Strategy Officer,  Chief Analytics Officer, Chief Product Officer, etc…


Because a CMO with a big ego isn’t going to acknowledge the fact that they’re weak in analytics or growth. They’re not going to invest in their own development. Instead… They’re going to invest in finding ways to maintain an image that they have of themselves as being a once in a lifetime genius.

When the industry is screaming: You’re so smart. You’re so creative. You’re so great.

You start to believe it.

And that starts to trickle into all areas of your work. You start to think every idea you touch turns to gold. You start to think that you are the only person with an eye for a certain thing. You start to think that you’re irreplaceable and sometimes you even think you’re more important than the company.

It’s a dangerous game to play.

But ego isn’t the only thing causing a decrease in the demand for a CMO and the way the role is positioned in the market. A few other things contribute:

1. Goal Clarity

What is the most important metric for a CMO to care about? Are they supposed to care about site traffic? Are they supposed to care about media coverage? Are they supposed to care about SQLs? Maybe MQLs? Should they care about ROAS? Or should they care about their ranking on Google? What about brand perception and awareness? The differences that exist between one CMO’s goals and the next causes a lot of variance between expectations and CMO candidates. This is why it’s so important for brands to have clarity around the expectations they have for their CMO when they come onboard.

2. Goal Ownership

It’s rare to find CMOs who are interested in taking ownership over goals that shareholders and stakeholders care about. It’s not easy if you walk into a role looking for passive outcomes and lukewarm accountability but is certainly feasible if you want a long-lasting tenure. You need to identify key metrics that you can influence that are worth talking about in a shareholders letter. Whether it’s the amount of revenue attributed to channels you own, revenue expansion associated with your work or an increase in overall inquiries – You need to identify metrics worth reporting.

3. Over Stretching Demands  

This one isn’t on you entirely as the CMO. It’s also on the executive team not being fully aware of the depth and breadth that falls under the category of marketing. In many instances, CMOs take on way too many roles rather than focusing on a few key areas and hiring Directors to lead the rest. For example; if you’re an Paid Media Driven CMO — then you should own all paid media efforts top to bottom. But hire a Director of Community, SEO and Content to help in areas where you’re weak. You don’t need to do all the things.

4. Integrating Product & Marketing

In the world of SaaS and digital tools, there are very blurred lines between product and marketing. The things that make your product unique can very well have an impact on how it’s perceived by the market and grows. Whether it’s how you price it, how you onboard customers or the investment you make in creating viral loops – product & marketing should strive to work very closely. In February 2020, Shopify terminated their CMO and Tobi explained the reason as: At one point in the past, marketing and product were integrated and growth was planned into the product work from the build phase onwards. We need to get back there. And any CMO that hasn’t integrated the two functions is at significant risk.

The combination of these challenges and ego are what I believe play the biggest role in job title of CMO slowly evaporating in many companies.

In 2019, McDonald’s & Uber both had CMOs step down and replaced them with other C-suite positions and new VPs in marketing & communications. The trend will likely continue until CMOs start to understand the importance of avoiding the ego trap, taking ownership of their goals and filling their seat at the C-suite table.

But sure…

If you’d rather a plastic trophy at the “Marketing Platinum Party” than by all means…. Stay focused on maintaining your pride and doing things that will impress others in the industry more than you do things to impress your customers.

We are not the same. And that’s okay.

But if you’re reading this I don’t think you’re going to take that path.

So go have a great week and make it count…

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