Meet the New Progressive CMO

With marketing only becoming more diverse and complex with the introduction of new technologies and ideologies, it’s the role of the CMO to be across it all. NZ Marketing profiles the progressive CMO of the future as the current crop of leaders tell what top traits are needed to make a mark.


As marketing undergoes a profound shift due to new digital trends and technologies and a pandemic that’s become all-consuming, in its approach, relationships and even spend, the industry has inexorably changed,
and will continue to change in the coming years. Recent Accenture report ‘Way Beyond Marketing’ says 90 percent of today’s CEOs and chief marketing officers believe the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) role will also change significantly in the next three years.

With more than marketing on their minds, CMOs must not only work to improve brand communication strategies, customer experiences and digital touchpoints, but also on business strategies, diversity and inclusion initiatives, e-commerce and ROI for their boards too.

The global survey of almost 1000 CMOs identified that only a small cohort of marketers are leading the charge. “Seventy-five percent of CMOs admit past formulas are no match against the new disruptors, able to deliver more relevant customer experiences. Seventeen percent of pioneering marketeers are now leading the way,” it concluded.

As reported on NZ Marketing’s website, when asked how to keep the rest of the C-suite (particularly the CFO) on strategy when making long-term bets on an uncertain and rapidly changing future, marketer and former professor Mark Ritson recently told a room of Auckland-based CMOs to “Eat the elephant one year at a time”. He also made mention of sticking to marketing theory that works.

On this, Mercury CMO Julia Jack says agility and adaptability is key. “Our markets are changing at an ever-increasing pace. This was already the case, but add in situations like a global pandemic and the level of that favourite buzz-term VUCA [volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity] reaches a peak. We need to be able to redirect our brands to be relevant and useful for our customers in their changing environment, while still holding the longer-term vision and purpose.”

With this in mind, the team at NZ Marketing put together a list of attributes that we think fits the profile of the progressive CMO. We also approached a few top CMOs to get the inside track on what they think it takes for a CMO to be a disruptor and a game-changer.

Six attributes of a progressive CMO

1. Hybrid thinking

Given the rise of digital marketing and online culture, and with this all the tech needed to support e-commerce needs, data requirements and better UX/CX, the CMO of the future is going to be a hybrid of a CIO and CTO. Yes, they’ll still be grounded in marketing strategy, but they’ll have no fear of technology.

This will mean that the sometimes siloed nature of marketing will have to be broken down to a certain degree, and the walls within the C-suite removed. Having said this, the same is true for other CMO- partner relationships, from working with agency and innovation partners, to tapping into marketplace trends themselves. 

On the technology side, a strong understanding of web and social analytics is also going to creep into the CMO’s day-to-day. Big data platforms crop up daily, and the CMO of the future needs to be familiar with the landscape. What’s important here, though, is that the future of big data isn’t collecting it, it’s being able to interpret, understand and leverage it. Yes, brands will have their tech crew to get into the nuts and bolts, but the CMO must still be across it all. 

Jack says that the changing CMO will need to be mindful of bridging  the increasingly ‘grey’ accountabilities and overlaps with other commercial and technology roles, such as that of Chief Customer Officer, Chief Consumer Officer and Chief Digital Officer. “This is to ensure we’re leveraging the combined strengths and skills of our organisation and people to get the best commercial and customer outcomes.”

2. Collaboration

This brings us to another trait all progressive CMOs must possess – the ability to effectively collaborate. As barriers fall and silos are broken down within organisations, the CMOs who are most successful in their roles are developing and leading a collaborative team culture. Even though they assume a leadership position, a truly progressive CMO must be an outstanding team player. Equally important is the ability to build a culture of collaboration, not a hierarchy, where all people feel they’re heard and are empowered to be change agents. CMOs should be constantly seeking the input of everybody else involved. It’s also vital that they act as a mediator between the different parts of their team, in order to solve issues and foster cooperation.

3. Open-mindedness

Risk-taking is essential for successful CMOs. Some of the best marketing ideas make no sense when pitched but are bold in design and approach. A progressive CMO will have the ability to see and run with them, and the staying power to make them work. 

CMO at Electric Kiwi Andrew Cooper says that this is one of the traits he applies to his role at the electricity provider. “We’ll always be well served by curiosity, commercial acumen, creativity and leadership, but one thing that could be the difference for some is open-mindedness. What we did 10 years ago is not what we’re doing today, and it won’t be the same in 10 more, so it’ll be handy to be comfortable at the bleeding edge. Although it could become more useful to understand the ins and outs of machine learning, this won’t be a path to success without an understanding of your customers and the way your business makes them feel.”

4. Ability to Unlearn

Embracing the concept or the tactics of innovation is not enough. CMOs must constantly embrace change and cultivate new ideas. As marketing leaders, Flick Electric Co CMO Sunil Unka says it’s imperative that CMOs recognise the role they play in shaping society and cultures. “We must be awake, alert, aware and take bold action to be fully responsible for our power and seize our opportunity to contribute to a better world. In order
to do that, we need to break free of the cages that we’ve been put in, and that we’ve put ourselves in.”

Unka adds that in order to do this, there are times when CMOs need to let things burn and unlearn their conditioning, which might mean dropping what has helped in the past. “If we tear down the structures and systems that damage the environment, that hurt, harm and leave people behind, then we’ll give ourselves the freedom to imagine, create and innovate. That will enable us to better serve humanity, our people, our businesses and our communities, and regenerate our planet. The solutions and resulting outcomes will yield significantly greater value and will be more holistic, sustainable and durable.”

5. Courage

Hand in hand with open-mindedness and the ability to unlearn comes courage. This is an especially important trait in the constantly shifting and evolving martech landscape, where ad tech and marketing are increasingly converging. The courage to support that wacky creative pitch and the courage to sell it to the board and see
it through to ROI… being a progressive CMO takes guts.

6. Curiosity

The best CMOs are also lifelong learners, always willing to discover and try new channels, platforms and processes. They’re curious by nature and surround themselves with smart people in the hope of absorbing their awesomeness. They’re also curious about their customers. Why? Because customers come first.

“Anyone who wants to lead a brand-forward CMO must be curious about customers,” says Bridget Lamont, CCO at Loyalty NZ. “What makes your customers tick? What pain points do your customer experience when engaging with your brand? What can your brand do to stand out in your customers’ minds?

 “Curiosity feeds innovation and creativity, and prompts us to ask questions to challenge the status quo while remaining utterly focussed on creating positive and purposeful outcomes for customers.”


This article was originally published in the March/April 2021 issue of NZ MarketingClick here to subscribe.

David Nothling-Demmer

About David Nothling-Demmer

David Nothling-Demmer is Editor of NZ Marketing magazine.

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