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The Evolution Of CMOs: From Mad Men to Modern Marketers

When Charles Darwin was studying on the Galápagos Islands, he noticed something remarkable. On the islands were around 15 different types of Finches, all varying slightly based on unique environmental conditions. The birds’ physical characteristics enabled them to survive in the particular locations that they lived in.

For instance, the Googlus Analyticus used Google Analytics to monitor traffic to its website. This is in contrast to the HubSpotted Finch, which used HubSpot to monitor traffic and manage leads. On a more remote island that did not change as much as others, the Printica Medios focused only on ads in newspapers and magazines.

…or something like that. We could debate all day whether it was the birds’ marketing techniques or varying beak sizes that enabled them to survive, but what we do know is that the birds evolved in order to give themselves a better chance of survival in their environments.

More recently, we’ve seen a rapid evolution of Chief Marketing Officers. The last few years have seen the emergence of new technology that enables modern marketers to better understand, reach and engage audiences. This has disrupted the marketing industry to the core, forcing CMOs to evolve their techniques in order to survive.

Early CMOs: A Brand’s Storyteller

By no means am I implying that being a CMO was ever easy, but the early days of marketing were definitely more straightforward than today. Similar to the media of the time, marketing took more of a broadcasting approach. Let’s say you were advertising women’s soap on television. This process was much simpler since there were only a few channels to choose from, and so the shows to advertise during would not be too difficult to select from as well.

Though strategy was involved, the process was a lot more right-brain focused. With few media to choose from and limited means of gaining customer insight, CMOs spent more time on the creative side of marketing: messaging, imagery and so on. Marketing’s sight was set on creating stories for a brand that resonated with audiences.

As media evolved over the latter half of the 20th century, marketing was forced to evolve right along with it. Using TV as the example again, the introduction of cable meant the number of channels available went from 3 to 30 to 300. This was a sign of the changing times, with media moving away from a mass communications model towards a more niche and individualized form. CMOs now had an imperative need to understand exactly who their audiences were and where they could be found.

Plugging In

The Internet radically changed the marketing landscape forever. The way that cable TV disrupted traditional broadcasting models was a tiny blip compared to the monumental impact that the web brought. As Jessica Meher puts it, “Where many traditional CMOs see digital as a new place of communication, digital CMOs see it as a new way of communication. These leaders have been able to transform how they market, not just where they market. Ultimately, they don’t just show up at the party — they are the party.”

There are endless changes that the Internet brought and getting into each one is way beyond the scope of one blog post. The key to take away is that it enabled everyone to be connected in a profound way. This meant not just a new way for brands to reach audiences, but for customers to connect with other customers as well.

Putting Customers First

With social media, everyone has an equal voice. Individuals now have the opportunity of reaching millions in ways previously reserved for only the biggest brands. Your brand is only one bad review away from dissuading thousands from making a purchase. Expectations are now higher than they’ve ever been: If your product isn’t the best, then there’s someone else's that is.

Gone are the days when a product was created and then the CMO was tasked with making people want it. If a product fundamentally doesn’t speak to the needs of its customers, then customers will let each other know this and it will sit on the shelves. CMOs are perhaps the most knowledgeable of who a brand’s customers are and what they want, which is why they are now more involved with the product development process. By keeping a close watch on customers’ wants and needs, the CMO now helps to ensure a product has the best chance for success before it’s even launched.

Knowing their Numbers

CMOs have put down their paint brushes and dusted off their calculators. While it’s important to still be creative, it’s now imperative that a CMO is analytical. There are now tools available to monitor almost anything: who’s coming to your website, where they’re coming from, what they’re looking at, where they’re going after… the list goes on and on. These insights are crucial for getting a brand noticed in the extremely fragmented and endless world of the Internet.

CMOs also need analytics to prove the effectiveness of their marketing. It has always been a challenge to prove marketing’s ROI; for instance, how can you prove that a person made a purchase based on seeing your billboard? Fortunately, today there are metrics that can help prove the success of a CMO’s marketing. There are metrics that can track the exposure that content has received (e.g. social shares), and also insight into the direct path a person has taken (e.g. saw a blog post in a search result, clicked a link to your main site from the blog post, signed up for a trial). Now, when the CFO asks why they’re spending so much money on marketing, a great CMO will have the numbers to support the expense.

Marketing Automation

One of the defining moments of the shift from mass marketing to individualized targeting was the rise of marketing automation. This technology equipped CMOs with an attention to detail that was previously unheard of. As Corinne Sklar notes, it was a powerful tool that needed to quickly be learned: “To put it simply, without automation, marketers will be out-innovated by more modern marketing pioneers. The new CMO embraces technology as a competitive advantage to develop intimacy with the customer, which was previously too costly or even unattainable.”

Automation removed a lot of the guesswork that had plagued marketers up until that point. Instead of relying on gut feelings and focus groups, CMOs now know exactly what audiences like and can react immediately. If a person clicks a link in your email, they can automatically be added to your subscriber list. Visited your pricing page 3 times in the last week? Automatically alert the sales team! The possibilities are endless, which is why automation has become a top strategy for today’s CMO.

What’s Next?

CMOs can never get quite too comfortable, since the world of marketing is in a constant state of flux. New trends, technology and forms of communication are always emerging, with no one truly sure which ones will dominate next. Much like Darwin’s Finches, great CMOs embrace changes by adapting their techniques to their new environments. CMOs can’t afford to fight change: They must embrace it, study it and lead it.