The rebirth of the chief marketing officer

By Dawn McMullan

INMA

Dallas, Texas, United States

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An INMA conference comes at you like 1000 points of light. Sifting through the study tour stops and presentations, the workshops, the two days of more formal conference presentations — and the back and forth between audiences and presenters that fill any space within — can be a tad overwhelming.

As I sat back to do so on my back flight to Dallas from New York after our Media Subscriptions Summit 3.0 last week, one sort of odd point crawled to the top of the information overload: David Rubin is the first chief marketing officer in the history of The New York Times. 

David Rubin, chief marketing officer at The New York Times, talked at the INMA Media Subscriptions Summit about the differences in marketing journalism and products like deodorant.
David Rubin, chief marketing officer at The New York Times, talked at the INMA Media Subscriptions Summit about the differences in marketing journalism and products like deodorant.

Now David got my attention immediately by saying he was the man who brought Axe deodorant to the world in his former position with Unilever. As the mother of two young men who came of (body odor) age with Axe, I eyed him with the disdain that only a former carpool mom nauseous from the early morning fog of tween scent overkill can muster. But he quickly won me over.

David took the stage on the third of four days the summit. Joining him were Suzi Watford, chief marketing officer at The Wall Street Journal, and Miki Toliver King, who has the same title at The Washington Post. Everything they said was news media gold, but my brain had a difficult time not fixating on David’s introduction (much the way I fixated on my sons’ aromas a decade ago).

The first chief marketing officer in the history of The New York Times. In my flurry of note taking as I helped cover the event, I stopped and looked closely at him. Really? The New York Times is 168 years old. And has fantastic marketing. How is that even possible? 

At one point, David looked at Miki and Suzi and said: “Why are we all adding marketers when everyone else doesn’t think they need one?” 

I definitely felt like I’d missed a step. I didn’t know the CMO had disappeared and now it is already back? So I started Googling to see what was up. 

In an article entitled “Why more brands are ditching the CMO position” from AdAge last July, I learned 70% of Fortune 500 companies have a CMO, down from 74% in 2009. Still high, but apparently the position is trending down. Hyatt Hotels, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Uber, Lyft, Johnson & Johnson, and Beam Suntory are among the well-known companies that have ditched the position. 

Why? 

According to a recent CNBC article: “The changing role of marketing is reflective of the huge variety of new ways to advertise to and communicate with consumers. There is now an enormous range of new marketing technology (martech), for example, that personalises Web sites for each visitor to tech that uses Artificial Intelligence to create thousands of slightly different versions of an online ad.” 

“The emergence of digital technology has meant a ‘painful transition’ for CMOs, from long-term brand builders to operators who are focused on quality results and data, according to the ‘Predictions 2020’ report from analyst Forrester,” the article continued. “The report does not see the role being eliminated but stated: ‘We do see a stage set for a desperate fight for survival.’” 

So technology is replacing them? 

“Companies are consolidating marketing duties with executives who have broader mandates that often include sales and commercial functions such as product development, retail overnight, and more,” the article said. In CMOs places are titles like chief growth officer, chief experience officer, chief commercial officer, chief brand officer, and even the interesting president of brands, AdAge report: “It’s almost as if the word ‘marketing’ itself needs a marketing campaign because it no longer encompasses all that goes into building brands and growing revenue.” 

So the title was too limiting to the job that actually needs to be done?

But then you have Coca-Cola, which announced in December it is bringing the title of CMO back, replacing the broader chief growth officer. The Wall Street Journal reported Coca-Cola made the move because of a need for “more emphasis on marketing to accelerate its vision.” 

The Wall Street Journal talked to Keith Johnston, vice president and research director at Forrester Research: “That’s kind of the trap of some of these proxy roles sometimes. If you’ve aligned budgets and decisions, you’re in a pretty good place, but you can’t have someone who doesn’t really understand marketing. You have to emphasize the customer relationship because that’s how brands are built now, but you can’t dismiss the fact that brand plays a role.” 

Subscriptions Summit Moderator Robert Whitehead asked the three CMOs to describe their job duties.
Subscriptions Summit Moderator Robert Whitehead asked the three CMOs to describe their job duties.

So is the title in or out?

Robert Whitehead, long-time INMA ambassador and director of McPherson Media Group, questioned David, Suzi, and Miki about their job responsibilities. The answers were interesting:

  • David: All the ways The New York Times communicates to create and keep demand, customer care, marketing, branding, audience insights. He is not in charge of the bottom line but “I wouldn’t be here if we missed our subscription targets.” 
  • Miki: P&L for all digital content, digital subscriptions, licensing and syndication, branding, marketing. She does not have direct responsibility for print P&L, which is shared because it’s tied to operations. 
  • Suzi: Full P&L at The Wall Street Journal. She’s directly responsible for all subscriptions business, works with the chief revenue officer to make sure digital ad goals are met. 

David, it seems, has more of what I’d consider a traditional CMO role, while Suzi and Miki have direct bottom-line responsibilities … more like the “broader mandates” AdAge mentioned. 

For these brands and these CMOs, digital subscriptions are part of or adjacent to their job description — technology and broader roles included. And I felt more confident in the entire industry while listening to them, knowing the old-school version of their jobs — selling a news product — is so much more important than selling deodorant, soft drinks, or hotel rooms, or tacos (and this Texan loves tacos). 

Back to David’s question: “Why are we all adding marketers when everyone else doesn’t think they need one?” 

The answer may lie in this, also from David:

“There are 185 million people in the United States who read digital news each month. And fewer than 15 million who pay for it. There is no other industry I know where that’s the case. If we continue in a place where only 15 million people pay for news, we’re going to have problems.”

Indeed we are. It seems to me “marketing” is simply being redefined as it grows and lives its best life in the titles of these industry leaders as they work to solve this subscriber deficit. And our industry and democracy will be the better because of it.

About Dawn McMullan

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