How Marketing Managers Can Work Better with Their CMOs

Two glass bowls of popcorn on a wooden table next to a red table cloth

Your job is to keep things running smoothly. Your CMO's job is to "disrupt." How can you accomplish both goals?

CMOs are intellectual popcorn machines: the ideas percolate nonstop. They are there to lead change and deliver blue-sky thinking, which is exciting, but also potentially exasperating for you as the marketing manager.

After all, that blue-sky thinking can come at a cost that's sky high, and it's your job to translate those ideas into operational tasks by finding the resources to execute on these projects. If you say yes to every idea, you and your team will be stuck in a frustrating cycle of starting everything and finishing nothing. But if you start saying no, you'll earn a reputation as someone who's resistant to change and can't see the big picture.

When CMOs and managers can't find ways to support and complement one another's strengths, both parties suffer. Without the wise counsel of their marketing managers, CMOs can get carried away by enthusiasm like Tigger from Winnie the Pooh, and when marketing managers can't support the energy and optimism of their CMOs, they can become as stuck in their ways as Eeyore.

But when they find their groove, it's a powerful combination that can have a transformative impact on marketing operations and organizational outcomes. If your relationship with your CMO could use a tune-up, these four management practices can help to get things back on track. 

On Your Mark, Get Set—Pause

Your CMO may have great ideas every day, but that doesn't mean you have to shepherd every single one of them into reality. In fact, unless you are unlucky enough to have a bad CMO, they won't want you to.

Often, when a CMO presents an idea, they are spitballing rather than requesting—reasoning out a potential way forward by talking it through. Don't feel obligated to run with every idea they bring up or you'll wear yourself out. Chances are, they will have forgotten or abandoned the idea long before you come back with a fully-baked initiative. Instead, make a habit of asking them the following questions any time an idea reaches the "maybe we should do this" stage: 

"How high of a priority is this? When do you need it? Do you want me to calculate the resources we need to make this happen?"

Asking these questions will accomplish two objectives: it will remind the CMO that every idea comes with a price tag, and it will remind you that between the original "Eureka!" moment and the delivery of a fully-baked initiative, there is a vital interim step.

Identify the Roadblocks

Trust that despite their optimistic outlook, your CMO will want to understand the roadblocks that could jeopardize the project. As the person closest to the action, you have a valuable perspective to contribute in terms of the difficulties and delays that can sometimes stall a project, no matter how worthwhile, including organizational politics, silos, and technological quirks. 

No CMO likes to hear "no," or "we already tried that and it didn't work." But if, instead of shutting them down, you can reframe your response to explain WHY it didn't work, that's valuable information that they will be glad to receive. Maybe you couldn't get buy-in from another department, or maybe the technology just wasn't advanced enough to support the initiative. Whatever it was, understanding what those impediments were the first time around will help the CMO make a more informed decision about how to proceed. This is especially important for a newer CMO who may be lacking key pieces of information and history about how the organization operates.

Zoom in to the Details

While your CMO focuses on the big picture, they rely on you to provide the context and details and help them understand what's needed for success. By helping them calculate the effort involved and resources required, you enable them to make an informed decision about whether it's worth moving their idea forward to the next step.

What kind of workload would be involved in executing on the idea? How does that workload need to be distributed? What kinds of bandwidth do the people with the requisite skills and experience have right now?

That work may also involve acquiring new skills, either through a new hire or upskilling an existing team member. It may involve backfilling for existing people on the team. It may require the purchase of new technology, time to implement, integrate, customize, and test it, and time and resources to train users.

Brainstorm Potential Solutions

Unless you're the rare marketing department that's working at less than 100% capacity, something you're doing now will need to be sacrificed in order to do what your CMO wants you to be doing in the future.

Once you have a sense of the costs and effort involved in operationalizing the idea, take a hard look at how it will impact the existing marketing mix. Will you need to discontinue something that your department is already doing? If so, what are the ramifications in terms of loss of market mindshare and brand visibility, lead generation, or revenue?

Or could you gain some time back by automating some of the workflow? Are there any legacy activities that could be retired to make room for new initiatives? Any low-performing campaigns or activities that could be discontinued? Dropping or suspending an existing activity isn't always a bad thing: a healthy marketing strategy is always evolving.

Capture all of that detail in your initial report to give your CMO the full picture. If you can show that you have looked at all the angles thoroughly and sought out creative ways to fit the project into the existing workload, you'll show your CMO that you're committed to finding workable solutions.

By understanding the needs of your CMO and learning how to balance their ingenuity with your practicality, you can turn your Eeyore/Tigger dynamic into a collaboration capable of transforming marketing's potential and furthering your managerial success.  

For the CMO's perspective on the CMO-manager relationship, read Part 1 of this article: 5 Rules for a More Productive CMO-Manager Relationship.

About the Author

Eric Hollebone

Eric is DemandLab's Chief Services Officer. He is a three-time Marketo Champion, a two-time Revvie Award winner, author of “Change Agents: The Radical Role of Tomorrow’s CMO,” and an early advocate of marketing automation, measurement, and analytics. Eric has experience leading all facets of global marketing and product management, including customer acquisition/retention, brand awareness/development, corporate/content marketing, product management for large public sector enterprises, early-stage ventures and private organizations.

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