tech CMO chief marketing officer

In Praise of the Tech CMO

There are three jobs I trained extensively for that I never got—but, not because I couldn’t find a path to the opportunity—it was because I realized that I wouldn’t personally touch the job with someone else’s 10-foot pole. The last career path I abandoned before figuring out that being an analyst was the perfect job for me was Chief Marketing Officer, or CMO. My first formal mentor at IBM was a CMO and I learned skills from him that have served me very well throughout my long career. But you’d think those skills would have been building a marketing plan, managing an international budget, understanding the unique geographical differences needed to run a campaign in very different companies, or the most obvious skill of manipulating opinions and driving favorable behavior at scale. While I did learn those things and, when he became my mentor, already had a number of these skills, his superpower was executive infighting and developing a very thick skin.

Let’s chat about the largely thankless job of a tech CMO this week.

Why the CMO job sucks especially in Tech

What triggered this column is that I attended one of the larger tech events put on by a multi-national company this week. These tech events are typically the responsibility of the CMO, and they are massive affairs. More importantly, there are a ton of often conflicting goals. For instance, it seems like every executive and their brother wants stage time but almost no one wants to do the rehearsal work or even really contribute to the staging of the event they are part of. But, they will, after the fact, feel absolutely free to criticize every minor nit that doesn’t go right.

In fact, this goes to the core of why I wouldn’t touch this job in a tech firm. For some reason, folks that have no marketing background or experience whatsoever—particularly those who are engineers who generally lack the core skills needed to do marketing—feel that they are marketing experts. This means they are not only very little help in doing the marketing job, but they will also be outspoken about what a crappy job the CMO is doing. Their collective voice not only can destroy the ability of the CMO to function it can cost them their job.

A few years back I watched a new CEO at Intel, on stage mind you, publicly dress down his CMO for doing a crappy job after she had survived both cancer and the death of her spouse while doing it. The woman should have had a monument erected in her honor and, for really no good reason, was instead pilloried in front of all her employees and peers weeks before she was fired and replaced by a guy out of an office supply company that didn’t even have the right credentials to do the job. His big idea was to somehow put an “Easy” button on the PCs and hire the actor out of Big Bang Theory that was known for giving bad advice as an Intel advocate. This nimrod CEO, who himself was fired, didn’t even know how to be a CEO and apparently seemed to think the CMO’s primary job was to make him more famous (he put himself onto an Intel funded TV show that failed). That CMO was Deborah Conrad and sadly, much of what made her great is she survived the job longer than most of her predecessor and successor. The CEO was Brian Krzanich.

To me this was abuse at scale and it happened right as the #MeToo movement was ramping. So, to be clear, Krzanich abused and then fired a female CMO who was doing the best job that could be done in Intel and replaced her with a clueless man who sucked before he was fired for having an affair with a subordinate.

The CMO Job

This goes to why the CMO I trained under had developed these ninja executive fighting skills. He learned quickly that when things went wrong people often blamed marketing. Often, they were right but largely because marketing was under-resourced, the CMO was forced to take direction from people that couldn’t spell marketing, and rather than focusing on doing a great job, the CMO was instead focused on living through it. If you like abuse at scale, then by all means chase the CMO position, but if you don’t—and I really don’t—then maybe another path would be best for you.

Wrapping up

Now this isn’t about my convincing you not to be a CMO even though it seems that way. This is about recognizing that your CMO and the CMO of every tech company is in an abuse magnet job. If you feel like I do that abuse for any reason is wrong, then rather than shooting that snarky comment about something you don’t like to management or the CMO her, or himself, maybe, instead, consider that you don’t have the entire picture. Recognize that someone in this position might need a little praise instead, and find something nice to say. I mean, just imagine if every fricken person in your company felt free to—without knowing your job—to tell you how much you sucked and made brain dead suggestions on how to do it better.

This is as much a note to me as it is to you because I found myself picking apart things that I think could have gone better at the event and there were several them. But, in general, the event worked far better than a number of them I’ve attended this year and it was larger than most of them. So, this is my way of apologizing for not focusing more on things that went right and recognizing that many of the things that went wrong were due to underfunding and inadequate support. And this is to also recognize my admiration for anyone doing a job that is often more about infighting and tolerating abuse than in accomplishing the task the title implies. For you and me, I’m just suggesting that sending a note that supports your CMO rather than yet another that is critical would likely have a far bigger positive impact on them and on you.

Since this is coming after two major events, Dell Technology World and Microsoft Build, I’d like to call out their CMOs Allison Dew and Frank X. Shaw and thank them for their work. I’d also like to call out J.J. Davis who left Dell and then came back this year as head of communications and Melissa Grant who just left Microsoft PR to run a powerful marketing group at Microsoft. These two I’ve known for some time and tickled both are getting the recognition they have worked so hard for.

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