What ‘unit-level CMOs’ need from the boss

Marketing is evolving from a service function to a strategic function

“Chief marketing officer” is still a relatively new title, but if you believe in the idea behind the role you’ll probably recognize you need as many people with the CMO’s outlook as possible.

That’s one of the things I took away from ‘The Rise of the (Unit-Level) CMO,’ an article I stumbled across last month on a U.S. publication called Inside Higher Ed. Written by Rob Zinkan, associate vice-president of marketing at Indiana University, the piece explores whether the insights of marketing teams are being effectively heard by the most senior leadership in an organization.

“It has never been more critical for institutions to understand and articulate who they are, what differentiates them, and why their constituencies should care,” Zinkan writes. “However, has this movement – CMOs gaining a seat at the leadership table – translated to the unit level within our decentralized organizations? From my vantage point, it appears to be happening at a slower rate.”

Though Zinkin is writing specifically for his peers in academic institutions, I think a lot of it would be familiar to CMOs working in other industry sectors. He suggests, for example, the best CMOs are those who achieve a healthy balance between focusing most of their time on high-level strategic planning versus the minutia of everyday problems. When you’re working at the unit level, of course, that becomes harder when you don’t have much in the way of staff or other resources.

The reality is, getting your hands dirty with day-to-day details can do a lot to inform a strategy that succeeds versus one that is dreamt up by someone so senior that they’ve lost touch with those details. This is why banks and other large organizations have had both a top-level CIO and divisional CIOs to look more holistically at technology needs, for example. It may be that marketing leaders require a similar organizational design. As Zinkin points out, it starts with making sure the best learnings are communicated to the people who need to hear them.

“Those of us in central marketing roles must continue to advocate for our unit-level marketers. The more they have a place at the leadership table as direct-reports to the dean, the more they can help advance their schools’ strategic initiatives and the more our institution will benefit.”

This doesn’t necessarily mean giving everyone in marketing departments a CMO title, of course. It’s more about being very clear and articulate about what a CMO is really intended to do, and develop the team to share some ownership of the goals and objectives that matter. Those unit-level CMOs are already out there. Whether you work in academia or elsewhere, your leadership priorities in 2016 should include finding new ways to champion them.

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