In our 2018 CMO predictions, in the wake of Coca-Cola replacing its CMO with a chief growth officer (CGO) and the emergence of this role in other companies like Hershey’s and Kellogg’s, Forrester predicted that even more CMO roles at major brands would be usurped by a CGO.

Now in 2019, with Unilever CMO Keith Weed departing and speculation that Unilever will eliminate the CMO position entirely, it’s a good time to revisit this call. Keith Weed is an institution, so it’s no surprise that when an icon leaves, the leadership is taking the opportunity to do something differently — at the very least evaluating what the role means strategically for the business and what made Keith so successful. Weed had put Unilever on a path to bringing data, media, and creative branding together. He put no limits on the “M” in CMO, uniting stakeholders and garnering the resources needed for Unilever to be the most effective marketer globally for the third consecutive year (according to the Effie Index). So how do you replace 35 years of trust, experience, and a collaborative mindset capable of navigating the waves of change? In the absence of more Keith Weeds, many have chosen the CGO role: a position designed from the outset to work across marketing, sales, R&D, and finance to enable the business and culture to fulfill its new vision and deliver growth promised. In essence, this is another CEO-like executive who, in most cases, has a strong pedigree in marketing strategy.

  • Prominent companies are leading this change. Since Forrester’s official prediction, six Fortune 100 companies have taken on a new CGO or replaced an existing one: Archer Daniels Midland, CVS, GE, General Dynamics’ IT division, PepsiCo, and TIAA. Four other Fortune 500 companies have added or replaced CGOs: Altria, Colgate-Palmolive, Kellogg’s, and State Street.
  • CMO fears are well founded. Today’s CMOs are well aware of the building pressures. Nearly 50% of marketing leaders we surveyed in 2019 reported that driving growth is their No. 1 challenge as a marketing leader; delivering innovation is a close second, despite only 23% of CMOs reporting that they’re responsible for leading their firm’s digital transformation strategy and less than 16% saying they’re involved in the implementation.
  • Companies that have bet on CGOs have been rewarded with revenue and profit growth. Several 2018 Fortune 500 newcomers or those making the largest gains on the list have CGOs or roles with similar functions, such as DXC Technology, Molson Coors, and Securian Financial. To make matters worse for the CMO, many of the Fortune 500 newcomers or biggest jumpers don’t even have a CMO, including Anadarko Petroleum, Delek US , Liberty Media, and MasTec.

Despite these grim facts, marketing’s strong industrywide ROI over the past three years will help CMOs avoid becoming a C-suite relic anytime soon. But marketers beware: Companies are learning that many CGOs are living up to their titles, and some have even been able to thrive without a CMO. While marketing’s job security may not be in dire straits yet, there is cause for alarm, with over 60% of marketing leaders sharing that their primary C-suite communication challenge is demonstrating marketing’s impact on financial outcomes. That’s just it: The expectations of the role of the CMO have changed, yet we keep justifying marketing as if the “M” alone is the answer to creating, sustaining, or even branding a successful business in this age of the customer.

This challenge with the “M” despite the fact that marketing has changed forever seems trivial but is a very real threat. Perhaps we have simply surpassed an outmoded title all together, even though it has survived seemingly innocuous proxies like the chief digital officer, which filled the gap till tech-savvy became standard for every CMO. It all comes down to the person who owns and inspires in others creativity, customer empathy, and an unmatched passion for the business — that can’t ever be solved by a label change or reorg. While none of this is easy, the stakes are high for the CMO role. The challenge for CMOs looking to avoid irrelevancy and stave off extinction is threefold: 1) Take ownership of customer experience; 2) link marketing’s activities to measurable outcomes with technology at the core; and 3) communicate the impact of those outcomes while upholding the brand’s promise everywhere. Because if the CMO can be eliminated at the world’s largest advertisers and if they can have their responsibilities assumed by others at the most successful companies, then the CMO’s place in the C-suite is not a given anywhere.