Perspectives on Growth: Craig Coffey on the unique challenges facing CMO's

Jason Green

Apr 6, 2021

Craig Coffey, Founder and President of Way Maker Leadership, is an experienced senior marketer, general manager, and executive coach.  He has helped build businesses and global brands across the CPG, technology, telecommunications, and financial services industries.  As a Director for The Cambridge Group, Craig helps our clients solve their most critical growth challenges. 

We talked to Craig about how the CMO role has changed, how to navigate the unprecedented changes in consumer demand due to the pandemic, and what new skills successful CMOs will need going forward. 

You’ve been a senior marketer at a lot of great businesses over the years and today you coach a lot of CMOs, other senior marketers and C-Suite executives. How do you see the role of CMO changing?

Let’s face it, the CMO job is really tough.  Out of all the roles on the C-Suite team, the CMO has by far the shortest tenure.  And today, there are so many changes taking place among consumers, customers and society as a whole that it will require CMOs to reimagine their roles in fundamental ways to be successful.  While that may sound like an incredibly daunting challenge, I think it’s exciting.  There is an unprecedented opportunity to engage with consumers more deeply by meeting them where they are, rethink brands and offers, energize the entire organization and win more in the marketplace.

And it is the CMO and the marketing team that are uniquely positioned to make all of this happen by taking the challenges posed by the huge changes taking place across society and turning them into new growth opportunities.  In part, this is because the CMO and the entire marketing team have the deepest understanding of the consumer.  These insights put CMOs in a unique position to assess trends, anticipate consumer needs and recommend actions required by the entire organization to win.

You mentioned the unprecedented changes stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic that are impacting consumers and the market today.  Are there some trends you think are most important to focus on?

Overall, I think the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated a lot of trends that were already taking place.  The middle class keeps shrinking, shopping is more digital, telecommuting is more prevalent, screen time has increased, more experiences from school, to fitness, to medicine are virtual, and so on.  In many ways, we have experienced a decade’s worth of changes in under two yearsMany of these trends have probably changed consumers and all of us as a broader society forever. 

To help their companies deal with all of this, CMOs need to rise to the occasion.  Their jobs are going to be very different in this environment.  It won’t be so much what they do but how they enlist the entire company to think about reshaping the brand, mission and vision to address trends in the marketplace.

Beyond the tragic loss of life due to the pandemic and the toll it has taken on our physical and mental health, I think the biggest impact for most businesses and brands is certainly the economic recession driven by the pandemic.  We are facing incredible economic headwinds that should have every business reexamining their value equation.  Brands need to figure out how they are going to model greater value in this environment without knee-jerk discounts or desperately slashing prices.

In addition, there are technological and societal trends that have been accelerated.  Consumers have new expectations of brands and increasingly they are going to vote with their dollars to drive the changes they want to see.  Marketers need to meet consumers where they are, not force them into their own business model.  In other words, brands need to figure out how to serve consumers when, where and how they want to interact.  For example, the shopping journey has to meet consumers’ continuously increasing demands for convenience.  To make it happen, marketers will have to work across the organization with the supply chain team and others to meet the needs of the consumer not to simply achieve some internal goal.  

Given all of this, how do CMOs and marketing teams help their organizations succeed going forward?

The CMO and the marketing team is no longer just about dreaming up the next great ad campaign and then banging out advertising to support it.  CMOs will have to manage three key stakeholders in different ways going forward.  

First, the CMO has always had to win with consumers. But now, this stakeholder has changed so significantly that an assessment of how is required. Previously, a brand with an authentic story supported by a quality product may have been sufficient. But today there are new expectations, and the bar has been raised in terms of shopping experience, convenience, safety, and the meaning of value.   

In fact, alignment with one’s values may be most important in today’s world as consumers are more focused on going beyond a brands’ stated mission to what actions they take to address societal issues like racial injustice/inequality, gender disparity, sustainability, and political divisiveness.

As a result, the CMO must answer questions about the consumer and their brand that ultimately relate to company-wide policies well beyond the marketing function:  like How should my brand model safety and hygiene in ways that reassure consumers without freaking them out?  How can the brand model value in the face of current economic headwinds without desperately dropping price?  How should the brand model compassion and empathy in ways that are authentic?  While the CMO’s team will probably identify and understand the consumer needs, historical marketing tools can’t solve many of the broader issues consumers care about.  CMOs must appeal simultaneously to a second stakeholder.

Enter the rest of the C-Suite, the next audience CMOs must closely consider.  In my experience, most CMOs fail because they are not aligned with the CEO and the rest of the C-Suite.  To succeed, the CMO has got to go to the C-suite with the compelling story of how the world has shifted and how the business needs to shift to meet customers where they are.  Then the CMO must be the customer champion, the chief storyteller, the growth driver, the innovation catalyst, and a capability builder. It’s not by chance that many organizations have adopted a Chief Growth Officer role in place of a CMO.

In many ways, all of this starts from flipping the script and meeting customers where they are not forcing them to meet the business where it is.  To meet customers where they are, the CMO must build a much more collaborative relationship with the C-Suite, which might be quite different from the current working relationship.  The CMO needs to be more of an influencer in leading the call to action around change management.

Driving change across the organization means that the CMO can’t just work vertically within the marketing function any longer.  CMOs need to work horizontally to engage the entire organization.  Another major challenge is trying to drive change across an entire organization quickly.  Big companies have not been great at being agile, but that is what is needed now and the CMO can be the catalyst to drive those changes. 

Of course, those changes won’t happen if they are not tracked in ways that allow the entire C-Suite to monitor progress and take corrective actions as needed.  This will probably mean redefining what a scorecard for success looks like going forward.  The scorecard can’t just end with the traditional measures of market share, revenue and profit.   The new scorecard must include new measures about how well the business is meeting consumers where they are, how much value we deliver to the consumer and other new measures of how well aligned the business is with what really matters to the consumer.      

Finally, the CMO has got to engage his or her team in the changes that are required.  This may seem trivial but if the marketing team is not capable of handling the new work and the CMO has not engaged them, there is no way they will get it done.  One challenge today is figuring out ways to engage the team in a new hybrid/flexible work environment where the team is not together on site.  CMOs must build the team’s confidence and help them see how critical their work is to winning with consumers.

Like everyone, these teams feel a lot of uncertainty today.  There are some concrete steps CMOs can take to help address that and to help teams feel more engaged.  I think this starts with building relationships within and across the teamThe more the work feels like a series of tasks or transactions, the more isolated individuals feel, the less they see the big picture and the less engaged they will be.  It sounds really simple, but those relationships need to be built and actively managed.

In conclusion, what I’ve seen over the years is that excellent CMOs have both empathy and credibility.  They have empathy for the consumer and the progress the consumers is trying to achieve and how the company’s brand and offers help consumers.  They also have empathy for their marketing team and the challenges the team faces.  I think that empathy, compassion, trust and even sharing your own vulnerabilities and humanity at some level are going to be core to how people will lead going forward.  All of this must be authentic and natural, of course, not some forced type of theater.  At the same time, CMOs need credibility with their teams.  A great CMO has earned that credibility by focusing the organization on the consumer in ways that win with the consumer.  That combination of empathy and humanity along with credibility is a set of muscles that some CMOs have simply not exercised enough. 

And, now more than ever, CMOs need to build diverse teams to develop the new solutions that are needed.  Diverse teams generate new ideas because they bring different experiences to the table, add a fresh perspective and generally challenge the conventional wisdom.  A more diverse team strengthen your business, and at the same time, consumers increasingly expect the brands and businesses they support to foster diversity in meaningful ways.       



About the Author & Contributor

Jason Green is a Senior Partner with The Cambridge Group. He has 30 years of combined consulting and marketing experience working with clients across industries. He is the lead author of Optimizing Growth and is a contributing author to several other books and numerous articles on growth strategy.

[email protected]

Craig Coffey is a Director with The Cambridge Group and is the Founder and President of Way Maker Leadership LLC, an Executive Coaching Practice focused on C-suite leaders building strong teams that deliver inspired results.   Craig has achieved the credentials and certifications to be a member of the International Coaching Federation (ICF), the most recognized, governing and credentialing body of the coaching profession. 

Craig has had an extensive career as a Senior Marketer and General Manager across an array of Fortune 100 companies.  He is an accomplished, results-oriented leader with a proven track record of building businesses and well-recognized global brands for Kraft, YUM, PepsiCo, Nokia and Wells Fargo to name a few.   Craig is a Diversity & Inclusion champion and has a demonstrated ability to build productive organizational cultures and develop future leaders. Craig is also an active volunteer with American Corporate Partners as a dedicated mentor to US veterans transitioning from military service into the private sector.   

Craig has a business degree from Boston College and received a degree in management from Harvard Business School.