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5 Pieces of Advice for an Incoming CMO

I heard a story once about an outgoing CMO who left three cards in an envelope for his replacement to use only when the company was experiencing hardship. Sure enough, after a period of business growth, the new CMO saw a dip in performance. Remembering the cards, he drew the first one out and on it was written: Blame Legacy Creative. So he went back to the CEO and said that the inherited creative was stale and needed revitalization. With new creative, business results quickly improved. They soon leveled out, however, and began to decline again. Knowing that the cards worked the first time, he drew out the second card, which read: Blame Weak Talent. The CMO went again to the corner office, this time saying that they needed to reorganize and upgrade talent. Again, the numbers started improving. But this lasted for only a short while, and in the face of newly declining results the CMO turned in a panic to the final card, which read: Prepare Three Cards.

For any business leader, entering a preexisting set of circumstances and finding the right Strategy for success is extremely difficult. Learning the business, organizational structure, investors, analysts, among many other things, can be exhausting and can easily end up leading you backward instead of forward. It’s why CMOs have a notoriously high turnover rate. I’ve seen several top performers struggle with this, and I’ve identified five basic things an incoming CMO must get right in order to ensure early success.

Understand the Story Before Rewriting It

It’s amazing the number of top marketing executives who arrive in a new position at a successful company with a preconceived notion about the brand and grandiose ideas on how it will be changed. What they should already know is that every brand has its defining Story. Great brands have Stories that have been developed, nurtured and cultivated over years, sometimes decades. Its your responsibility as CMO to examine the underlying insights that led to that Story, so that you can revitalize those essential ideas for a new consumer audience. Too many CMOs want to make their mark by trashing what’s there—don’t fall into that ego trip. Assume that the Story has something to offer and then work on it to bring out its best and most important qualities.

Renovate Before You Innovate

I learned this lesson from former Coca-Cola CMO Sergio Zyman, who learned this valuable lesson with the introduction of New Coke in 1985. Too often, incoming CMOs look past the existing product portfolio to new products as the solution to all the growth woes. While innovation has its place in the marketing mix, don’t ignore the opportunity to revitalize existing products. In many instances, they need only to be refreshed and polished in order to grow.

Withhold Judgment

I learned this one the hard way. During my first week working as CMO, I asked one of my VPs to give me an assessment of the team. He walked me through his entire staff and indicated he had one team member who was a solid worker, but who didn’t do much without being told to do it. Rather than question the assessment, I took it at face value and treated that employee in a manner consistent with what I’d learned. When that VP left the organization, this person had to step in and pick up much of the slack left by the vacancy. To my amazement, this team member was proactive and had great insight. I learned that the problem wasn’t with the employee but with his boss, who rejected all his ideas and caused him to do as he was told. I’m not saying there aren’t people on your team who may be in over their heads, but always assume everyone has a strength that may not have been uncovered yet. You may find a few hidden gems.

Be Sure Strategy Supports Story

I once worked on a top-selling, super-premium brand whose team felt it was appropriate to spend 80% of their marketing dollars on price discounting and rebates. This mixed-up approach led to significant brand confusion and Story dilution—was the brand high-quality or was it bargain basement stuff? Consumers weren’t sure anymore. There was a critical disconnect between what they saw and what the marketing team felt they were projecting into the marketplace. If your Story is strong you have to tell it consistently and support it constantly with your activities, ensuring that your marketing and advertising are aligned properly. Alignment and relentless consistency are critical when it comes to Story.

Ignore the Voices in Your Head, Listen to the Voices in the Market

Most marketing executives walk into a new position with at least some idea of how to improve the marketing, simplify the messaging and restructure the organization—but just set those ideas aside for a minute. Get out of your office and go where the customers are. Sit with them. Experience the product with them. Watch what they do and don’t do, what they say and don’t say. Ask a lot of questions. I worked on a vodka brand years ago and before looking at presentations, research or financials, I went with the head of sales to the bar (several, actually). We sat with the bartender and had a conversation. “When you make a martini,” I asked him, “what brand of vodka do you recommend?” The answer led to a number of additional questions that helped me understand how the “gatekeepers” thought about the product. Similar conversations with consumers yielded the same type of insight. As we’ve written elsewhere on this blog, it’s this kind of focus on the customer that allows you to initiate a more productive, consumer-centric view of the product and the market.

Most CMOs I’ve met are hard-charging Type A personalities. They want to win and win quickly. After thirty years in the business, my advice is focus on what you have and what you can do with it before dismissing it all to start over again.

Want more advice and insights? Download the 3S Playbook for Transformational Marketers here or check out a preview of Dave Sutton’s new book Marketing, Interrupted here.