How many CEOs do you know who used to be CMO? It won’t be many. When businesses look for a new CEO, they tend to look to the same few feeder roles: CFO, COO, P&L leaders… Despite successful CMOs proving their leadership, desire to innovate, and ability to deliver returns on investments, few see them as CEO material.

This is, of course, down to misconceptions. Great CMOs have significant CEO potential. That’s why we brought together dozens of CMOs to hear from three marketers who had climbed to the top:


Katie Vanneck-Smith  

Katie Vanneck-Smith

Katie was the CMO of newspaper publisher News UK. She is currently the CEO of Hearst Magazines UK.



Ash Schofield  

Ash Schofield

Ash was the former Head of Marketing at Tesco Mobile and Marketing & Experience Chief at giffgaff, a UK cellular network. He is now CEO at giffgaff.



Davin Nugent  

Davin Nugent

Davin managed the alcohol portfolio at Richmond Marketing, a specialist food and beverage marketing agency. He was later CEO of the global drinks company, Mark Anthony Brands International, for seven years



The discussions provided some great insights into how CMOs can take a different path to the top. Here, we summarize some of the key recommendations for CMOs who want to elevate their careers.


Don’t plan a path to CEO

Katie, Ash, and Davin agreed that marketers can’t set out with a plan to be a CEO. 

They shared that none of them had actively planned their careers. Instead, they followed their passions for managing brands and understanding consumer needs, and those loves meant they were always looking to learn more and connect with people.

Critically, they felt that CMOs need to think of themselves as businesspeople—focus on building things, fixing things, and delivering results. This focus is what makes P&L roles achievable. 


Use disruption to raise your profile

Digital business models and direct-to-consumer solutions were major shifts the panel felt had created opportunities for them.

In times of disruption, it’s important to continue to make unpopular decisions. Not everybody will always agree with you. But if you believe in your convictions and make those decisions, you’ll prove your CEO potential to the board. 

CMOs are in a unique position to do this. You create value by understanding your consumer, so you know how to respond to, and when to lead, industry disruption.


Own the customer

Great marketers walk in their customers’ shoes, letting them champion the customer in the boardroom and drive change. 

This is key to proving CEO potential as it requires you to influence other executives. The panel agreed that the best way to do this is to put the customer’s voice at the center. Customers speak in simple terms—what you hear from them can cut through the business dressage and depersonalize an ego-driven environment. 

And as CMOs know the brand better than anyone, they can make sense of, and lend real weight to, the customer perspective.


Use storytelling internally

A CMO’s gift is communication. Marketing has more data and analytics than ever before, but it’s the CMO’s ability to put a story to all that information that will get them to the top spot.

You know storytelling matters. It already ensures your customers will listen and understand your points. So, do the same internally—look back at history and connect it with the future to create a narrative thread that proves the value of your plans. 


Make friends with finance and marry tech

Internal relationships are key to success but aren’t always easy. Sometimes, CMOs look like they’re having too much fun, so invite people from across the business into your world to show the value of what you do.

As digital marketing evolves and the number of customer touchpoints grows, investing in innovative technology will be vital to your ability to deliver results. So, strong relationships with finance will be crucial. These relationships will also give you valuable knowledge and advocates when it comes time to move up the ladder.

Technology is, arguably, an easier function for CMOs to befriend as everybody in tech cares deeply about the customer experience. But that relationship should be much closer. Proving you understand the true value of different teams will set you apart in the journey to the CEO spot.



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