Marketing & Advertising

Why Top CMOs Say They Have the Wrong Title

Give the average person a pencil, a blank sheet of paper and 30 seconds to write down the attributes of a marketer. What words do you think make the list? Loud, talkative and pushy would be no surprise. And those might be the most generous adjectives. 

By extension, the average person might think that chief marketing officers must be the loudest, pushiest people in the business world — boardroom generals blasting brand megaphones at buyers, winning business through sheer force of will.

That description may be true of some marketers. But through conversations at the 2020 CES® C Space Studio, I learned that leaders from Delta to Deloitte see things differently.


Less “Marketing,” More Listening

Tim Mapes is Delta’s chief marketing and communications officer. But as he explained, the terms marketing and communications don’t really capture the way he views the job.

“The fallacy of both of those words is they suggest you're out communicating and talking out,” Mapes said. “What we orient ourselves around is listening, because the needs of our 90,000 employees and needs of our 200 million customers are what hold the keys to the future.”

It’s not as if Delta isn’t marketing, of course. The company made a splash at CES with “parallel reality”, which allows multiple customers to simultaneously see different flight information on the same screen, and a robotic exoskeleton to help baggage handlers lift heavy luggage with ease.

But Mapes is more concerned with understanding the people Delta serves.

“When you look at the innovation that is driving and that we're showcasing here at Delta and at CES, they're not things that we want to do because we want to go do them,” he said. “They’re things that customers and our employees tell us will make their travel lives better.”

In fact, Mapes suggests a new title for the C-suite: chief listening officer.


Less “Chief,” More Customer Connector

It’s not just the “marketer” part of the title that might not fit the role. One of the CES conference sessions was called “Putting the ‘C’ in CMO.” Two of the speakers also joined me in the C Space Studio — and neither put much stock in the word “chief.”

“I did think once you made it to the C suite, you were in charge,” said Diana O’Brien, Deloitte’s global chief marketing officer. “But it isn't that. It's really about collaborating and working across boundaries with your peer group and taking ownership over the entire enterprise.”

“It's about being the collaborator and the convener and the connector of issues that your organization faces,” she continued.

O’Brien’s work as CMO happens in concert with clients. Through conversations and shared experiences, she said, “We can learn from each other and we can continue to grow and solve problems we're both facing.”

General Motors Global CMO Deborah Wahl had another take on the letter. 

“The C doesn't mean a whole lot in terms of chief,” she said, “but it does mean a lot in terms of contributing.”

Wahl anticipates the CMO role becoming more valuable, regardless of title. 

“We are advocates for the customer,” she said, “and that's our role in the company overall.”

So what should a CMO actually be called? Combine the opinions of Mapes, O’Brien and Wahl, and you get something like a “collaborative contributing listening officer.”

Granted, that title may not take off. But for top CMOs, it’s already a way of life.

Watch the full interview with Delta Chief Marketing & Communications Officer Tim Mapes

Watch the full interview with Deloitte Global CMO Diana O’Brien.

Watch the full interview with General Motors Global CMO Deborah Wahl.

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