Five Questions Marketing should ask the CEO

Jerry Rackley

By Jerry Rackley

A few months ago, I posted an article, “Five Questions Every CEO Should ask Marketing” that was written based on a conversation I had at a conference with a micromanaged CMO. That conversation was a reminder that the relationship between marketing and the corner office is sometimes dysfunctional. So in that post, I suggested five questions as a framework for constructive dialogue to establish a healthier, more productive relationship between the marketing function and the executive who manages it.

The reception to that blog post was good. It led to a webinar and an opportunity to stand in front of a room filled with CEOs to discuss their CMO relationships. I knew when I authored that post that a second post was needed. The CEO should ask the questions I proposed in that blog post to the marketing team. It’s equally important that the marketing team have the opportunity to ask the CEO a similar set of questions to plumb the depths of understanding and relational commitment.

The ultimate aim of this set of five questions is the same as before: to ensure a healthy dialogue exists between marketing and the organization it serves, as represented by the CEO. This set of questions, like the last one, is not necessarily comprehensive. Consider them more as conversation starters, icebreakers to a level of discussion that is mutually beneficial. It’s also important to recognize that it’s unlikely that the CMO can ask and get answers to all five questions in a single, sit-down session with the boss. This dialogue may occur in segments, while walking to a meeting, casually over lunch or while sitting next to each other on an airplane. The important thing is for the conversation to take place:

  1. What’s your definition of marketing? CEOs have varied levels of marketing savvy and experience. Some are completely baffled by it; others climbed the corporate ladder by starting in marketing. It’s important to hear directly from the CEO what his or her view of marketing is. This is not something you should discern based on assumption. Ask the question and listen carefully to the answer. Some CEOs feel that marketing is essentially an exercise in laying out ads and placing them. A CEO with a different or limited view of marketing isn’t necessarily a cause for fear. What matters is that you both know what you believe about marketing and are able to reconcile differing views. A Demand Metric tool that might help facilitate this part of the discussion is the Marketing and Business Alignment Tool.
  2. How will you measure marketing’s success? Most organizations have some set of mechanisms to review performance of both people and functions. Many corporate functions lend themselves to easy evaluation because very clear, relevant measures are in place. Measuring marketing success is a challenge for most organizations. For example, it’s easy to know how many Facebook “Likes” the company has, but much harder to measure the level of customer engagement. As Albert Einstein said, “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.” Getting agreement on marketing’s report card removes a great deal of fear, uncertainty and doubt about appraising marketing’s effectiveness. Use the Key Marketing Metrics Dashboard to help define, track and report on marketing’s performance.
  3. Is marketing a strategic or operational function? Is marketing viewed as a strategic function designed to create a competitive advantage for the company? Or is it relegated to operate as an order taking entity that keeps the promotional items closet stocked, ships the trade show booth around and distributes the logo as needed? These two versions of marketing are on opposite ends of the spectrum, and the difference between these points is leadership. Marketing ideally enjoys strong leadership from a CMO that thinks and acts strategically and has a voice in corporate leadership decisions. When such a CMO exists within an organization, but is not empowered to lead, the organization forfeits the return on investment in the position.  It’s helpful to document the CMO’s role in a detailed job description, both to set expectations for performance but also to set a benchmark for appraisal.
  4. How involved will you be in managing the marketing function? Only the most insecure or inexperienced CMO wants a very hands-on boss. If the CEO is writing ad copy or tinkering with the layout of the product brochure, it’s probably a sign that something is broken. However, it’s just as unproductive for the CEO to banish marketing to a remote corner of the empire and supply it with no vision or support. The CEO should be neither a micromanager nor an absentee landlord. Ideally, the CEO is an informed advocate that has a trusted marketing team empowered to do its job and take appropriate creative risks. It’s best to sort out the management style questions early in the relationship. Use the Demand Metric Management & Leadership Assessment to help determine if both parties have the leadership posture to work well together.
  5. What level of resources will the marketing team have? Marketing, in its wildest dreams, would have virtually unlimited resources. But the reality for many marketing organizations is the bare minimum in terms of budget and staffing. What matters is if the CEO and marketing can agree on the essentials. This begins with a mutual understanding of the objectives, which leads to some negotiation on staffing, budget and the allocation of those resources to achieve those objectives. So if marketing’s priority is generating leads to fuel the sales engine, but there’s an unwillingness to fund a supporting marketing automation solution, that’s a problem. It’s marketing’s obligation to present a compelling business case for the resources it needs. The CEO’s obligation is to give a fair hearing to the requests for resources, not just apply an annual percentage increase or decrease to the marketing budget.

The type of honest dialogue these questions are intended to inspire will help the CEO/CMO relationship function at the optimal level. It’s important to start the conversation that should take place, but not to end it. Once a productive dialogue is established, both parties should commit to revisiting the topics of these questions regularly, to reaffirm a mutual understanding and commitment.


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