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Top 5 CMO Mistakes & How to Avoid Them (The Mistakes, Not the CMOs)

Introducing the 5 most difficult jobs in America, according to Career Overview:

  1. Coal Mining
  2. President of the United States
  3. Alaskan Crab Fishing
  4. Mercenary
  5. Chief Marketing Officer (CMO)

Confession: I may have bumped up CMO a few spots. OK, a few hundred spots, but that job is darn hard. (I’m blending CMO and Director of Marketing into one CMO title for sanity.)

I’ve been lucky enough to work for some extremely talented, savvy CMOs, in both business-to-consumer and business-to-business industries.

I’ve also worked for stiffs.

Big-time stiffs.

Some CMOs changed their minds every hour. Some couldn’t make decisions. Some were homicidal maniacs who wanted blood in every meeting. My blood.

In this post, I offer you the following three takeaways to improve your CMO interactions:

  1. The top 5 mistakes I’ve seen CMOs make
  2. How to deal with these CMOs (there’s hope!)
  3. How to overcome these mistakes if you’re the one making brand-building decisions (more hope!).

This list even includes CMOs who didn’t choose my ad agency during their Agency of Record pitches — so I’m thorough.

But first, some housekeeping notes:

These are my opinions as a “creative” with 16 years experience in marketing and advertising (again, B2B and B2C). I’ve been a copywriter, associate creative director and creative director. I have not worked with a $100 million client. Those are darn rare. My largest client has been $20 million. My average client has been $2.5 million. Some are $250,000. Some are pro bono. All include traditional, digital and/or guerilla deliverables.

So what prompted this list?

One day, still licking my wounds after a thorough beat down by a CMO, I was reminded of a similar CMO interaction 10 years earlier. I quickly passed out. Then, after recovering, I started connecting the dots on my office wall much like “A Beautiful Mind.”

Image 1   A Beautiful Mind (Open Clip Art Freeware)

I don’t want Ron Howard to sue me, so imagine these papers with crazy writing on them, strewn about a room and tacked to a wall. (Image Source)

I realized that most “bad” CMOs I encountered fell into five main categories. Amazing.

Yet before I reveal these categories, I’d like to reiterate that the role of a CMO is more difficult today than in the history of marketing and advertising. In other words, go easy on the hate mail, though I’m fully prepared to fight back at

CMOs face ever-expanding media fragmentation, ever-changing measurement techniques, conversion optimization pressure, omni-channel difficulties (whatever that means), CFOs, CEOs, every single salesperson with a pulse, legal, the competition, idiot advertising agencies, idiot “creatives” like me, you-name-it.

The CMO gig is tough!

However, there are right ways and wrong ways to be a brand steward. And a CMO is the brand steward, which should actually be in their title.

Without further ado, here are the wrong ways to be a brand steward, along with how you can overcome them:

1. Chainsaw Al

Do you know the name Alfred J. Dunlap? Never forget it.

He called himself “America’s Best CEO.”

His colleagues and contemporaries called him “Chainsaw Al.”

You see, Chainsaw Al was a corporate turnaround specialist who had a penchant for terminating hundreds, sometimes thousands, of employees at a time.

Note: Today, Al would be forced to call them “associates.” He would still fire them by the hundreds.

Many CMOs follow the bloody footsteps of Chainsaw Al. From the moment they’re hired, they crank up the chainsaw.


Image 2 Chainsaw

This is a floating chainsaw. What an invention. (Image Source)

It doesn’t matter if the brand is successful or not. Chainsaw.

It doesn’t matter if the salespeople love the ad campaign or not. Chainsaw.

It doesn’t matter if the needle has moved or not. Chainsaw.

Crank up the chainsaw!

The bottom line is this: when they are hired, the brand in its current state does not belong to them. Their fingerprint is not on it.

They were brought in to do something. Probably fast. And the fastest, easiest, laziest way to do “something” is to delete and start over.

You may be thinking to yourself, “Dumb article writer, if there’s a new CMO, that means the old way just wasn’t working.”

Yes, sometimes. But a marketing director’s average tenure is 45 months (half as long as CEOs). That’s a lot of broken brands using this logic.

Wall Street Journal, 2014 through Spencer Stuart (Image Source)

Think about this: now that marketing is becoming more targetable and more measurable than ever before, do you think the average tenure is going up or down in the near future?

Hint: it ain’t “up.”

If a CMO can’t prove to the board of directors and shareholders that their marketing and advertising campaigns convert prospects and move the needle — yes, even social media, though it’s not converting a red cent right now — then bye bye CMO.

P.S. The shortest CMO tenures are automotive and healthcare. Beware of those industries, CMOs and advertising agencies, beware.

Here’s a Dumb, Really Dumb, But Effective Brand Metaphor


Courtesy of Seriously. (Image Source)

Imagine, if you will, that a brand is a tree. Stay with me. And stop rolling your eyes.

Whatever your brand stands for, those are your roots. (Preferably one or two roots.) Your roots should never change unless your company is in dire straights.

Take Geico.

The Geico Case Study: One USP, Many Campaigns

Geico has had the same CMO for decades, luckily, but it’s a great example of a tried-and-true Unique Selling Proposition that has not grown stale.

“15 minutes will save you 15% or more on car insurance.”

That one line has fed the campaign for years.

Now, as the brand grows, it adds rings to its brand tree in form of campaigns. The campaigns utilize different characters and presentation methods, but every iteration is linked to “15 minutes will save you 15% or more on car insurance.” Everything.

Image 5 Caveman (GEICO)

So easy a cavemen can do it. (Image Source)

Image 6 Gecko Ad

GEICO was mispronounced “GECKO,” thus the gecko.

Pig (Source- GEICO)

Boots and pants and boots and pants.


How happy are customers who switched to GEICO … (Image Source)

Camel (Source Geico)
…As happy as a camel on Hump Day. (Image Source)

GEICO has utilized literally dozens of characters and scores of different campaigns, but they all revolve around the same theme.

Tree Rings

The GEICO brand tree rings. Let’s officially kill this metaphor. (Image Source)

GEICO CMO Ted Ward has led the brand through every iteration, thanks to data-driven analytics, believe it or not. If Chainsaw Al walked in the door, however, GEICO would change its brand promise to “Better service for our customers.” And fire 2,000 employees associates.

God help us all.

If something works for you, milk it like GEICO. Keep counting your money.

GEICO’s brand promise is so powerful, in fact, their competition is trying to undercut it by offering “faster than 15 minutes.” Good luck with that.

David Ogilvy said it best:

“It takes uncommon guts to stick to one style in the face of all pressures to ‘come up with something new’ every six months. It is tragically easy to be stampeded into change. But golden rewards await the advertiser who has the brains to create a coherent image, and the stability to stick with it over a long period of time.”

How to Deal with Chainsaw Al:

  1. EXTERNALLY: Pray. Also, meet with Chainsaw Al as much as you can. Sorry, but it helps. Explain the brand to Al (he’s probably only read the website). Tell Al about the war stories and the success stories. Fight for one small win, then two, then keep fighting for a medium win. There will be death all around you. DO NOT LOOK DOWN AT THE BLOOD. Keep your eyes on the finish line.
  2. INTERNALLY: If you’re an agency or freelancer, know this: you will be fired very soon. Find the next big brand action item on the calendar (tradeshow, media placement, etc) and draw a red circle around that day. This is the day of your death. Start looking for new business TODAY to replace the account you’re about to lose. One more thing: protect your team. They will slowly lose their souls, then slowly build their resumes. Protect them. Become their death eater.

How to Avoid Becoming Chainsaw Al:

After taking your CMO position, talk with as many people as possible before making a decision. Your agency, your vendors, your internal marketing team, the CEO, the CFO, your best salesperson, your next-best salesperson and any employee that passes the sniff test. Look at your competitors. Look at your analytics. Talk to customers. Then and only then do you act.

2. Pollsters

When a CMO constantly invites their entire team to every meeting, watch out.

I’m all for inclusion. I want my team to be empowered, to know that their opinion counts. But I don’t need their opinions at all times. As a manager, you pick your battles.

Not pollsters. For them, every meeting is a battle. Of inertia.

“So what does the team think?”

Kill me. This makes sense during a re-branding, per se. The team’s voice should be heard during re-branding. It’s a big deal.

A PPC ad? Not so much.

A flyer for a tradeshow invite? Nope.

Moz’s TAGFEE Code Case Study: Reflecting the Core Values of a Company Without Boring People to Death

Mozbot (Source Moz)

Meet the Roger Mozbot. He’s just so darn cute.

There’s just no way a company could create a mascot like Roger Mozbot with a room full of people.

The truth is less sexy, but necessary.

The Creative Director at Moz, Matthew Heilman, simply took the bull by the horns, as they say, and created something that was the EXACT OPPOSITE of what the competition was doing.

The competition had people as their spokespersons. Really boring people.

Moz needed something else. Something that reflected its brand personality.

Thus, Roger.

Moz’s Director of Conversion and Retention Marketing, Scott Willoughby, had a hand in naming Roger along with Heilman. And the CEO, of course, Rand Fishkin approved it. But that’s it.

There weren’t 50 meetings. No one voted. No A/B tests. No nothing.

Moz’s leadership used Roger Mozbot to exude their unique personality and bring their TAGFEE Code to life.

What the heck is the TAGFEE Code? Click on the image below to learn. Suffice to say, it’s a really cool, really intriguing way to bring a company vision to life.

Oh, and after you read it, check out every other company’s vision statement and sharpen a knife.

TAGFEE (Source Moz)

Absolut Story: How to Sell a Campaign Before You Sell a Campaign

Absolut (Source Absolut Book) (Image Source)

TBWA was pitching the Absolut Vodka account — but that’s half the story. Grand Marnier was the big fish in the pitch (worth $3 million), while Absolut was the carp ($800,000). Who knew?

Nevertheless, Bill Tragos, chief executive of TBWA, and his team came up with the now famous advertising campaign. But before the official pitch to the client and their big room full of big suits, Tragos privately pitched the campaign to Absolut’s head of sales, Michel Roux. It was a hit.

No team poll. No votes. One leader who made a decision.

Not surprisingly, TBWA won the account two days later. Since then, the campaign has created 500+ ads and grown sales from 20,000 cases in 1981 to 11.4 million cases in 2014.

Update: Absolut kicked off a new campaign in 2013 (with a relatively new CMO), so we’ll see how that fares.

Success comes from leadership, with the support of their team. It does not come from a room full of people voting on ideas.

How to Deal with Pollsters:

This is about to get gross, but it’s time to politic. You either have to get early buy-in from a client team member the CMO respects, or you have to get the CMO on-board before any team presentation. Read “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie. Not because it’s a fantastic book, but because it’s based on pure manipulation — getting what you want by making the other person think it’s what they want. Seriously, it’s a book on psychological warfare. But ohhhhh does it work.

How to Avoid Becoming a Pollster:
Communicate constantly. Respect your internal team and ask their opinions. Invite disagreement. There’s nothing wrong with that…but let them know you have the final say. Let them win a few small battles if you must (and if you respect their opinion). If you don’t respect their opinion, get rid of them. Marketers aren’t hard to find. Great marketers are hard to find.

If you rule by fear, your team will respond with problems they find with the work, not solutions to make it better. If you can’t make a decision as a CMO, your team will respond with nebulous answers until you gravitate towards something. Then they will pounce with agreement. Be decisive!

“In all the parks,
In all the cities,
You’ll find no statues
Of committees.”

-David Ogilvy

3. Micro Managers

I once presented a website redesign to a century-old textile company. Mammoth company. The room held five of us agency-folk and 10 client team members.

We presented the website (targeted at millennials) and asked the room their opinion.

No one spoke for 20 seconds. Which seemed like 20 minutes. Then, from the head of the table, came, “I don’t understand it.”

This was the 93-year-old CEO. He was not a millennial.

We then watched as every client followed suit with their condemnation. The man to left of the CEO agreed. Then the next. Then the next. Then the next. All the way around the room.


It’s easy to kill. It’s darn near impossible to create.

It’s easy to choose the path of least resistance. It’s hard to take a stand and fight.

Here are familiar utterings of Micro Managers:

“I’m not feeling it.”

“It just doesn’t work for me.”

“It just doesn’t sing.”

“I’ll know it when I see it.”

Run! Run for the hills!

Some Micro Managers are timid. They really don’t want to hurt the creative’s feelings.

Psst. We’ll get over it. 99% of our ideas die, and that’s before we show them to anyone else.

Criticism is not the anti-Christ. It’s often the impetus to better, smarter, more impactful ideas.

The famous “Got Milk?” campaign is a terrific example.

Got Milk (Source FontsInUse) (Image Source)

Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, the brilliant advertising agency on the account, pitched a medieval TV spot they thought fit the campaign. But the client killed it because it was off-strategy. The team thought about it and said “damn, you’re right. It is off strategy.”

It died and awesome ideas took its place.

That same agency once presented a TV spot to its Saturn client. After the presentation, Saturn asked the team if that was the best spot they could do. The team said “damn, it’s not,” so they worked during the weekend and produced one of my favorite TV spots of all time:

Sheet Metal (Source Goodby)

Strategic, insightful criticism is gold. Nebulous criticism is death.

However, when you reach Round 9 of revisions, you’re looking at devastation.

The good news/bad news with Micro Managers is that they can A/B test into oblivion…if they have the resources and time to wait.

Most are just afraid to make a decision.

When do they have to make a decision? Easy: when the media buy forces it.

Warning: War Stories Below!
I’ve created 10+ rounds of branding concepts, literally weeks of time, and literally 100 ideas, and the client didn’t pick one single thing. Not one headline. Not one anything.

I’ve sat in a room with a CMO for two weeks straight, every single day, five hours a day, as he read my website copy….word for word…questioning every single comma, headline, and verb tense.

I kept thinking to myself, “Doesn’t this dude have anything more pressing to do?” Guess not.

Of course, this is the same guy who had his assistant print out EVERY SINGLE EMAIL he received in one calendar year.

Micro manager.

How to deal with Micro Managers:

My best tip to you, Mr. and Mrs. Creative, is to not work three months ahead of a due date with a Micro Manager. At most, work one month out. Make them sweat. Wait them out. They will get impatient, yes, but the less time you have to create, the less time they have to re-do it 1,000 times. Feel free to craft your ideas like a pro, but don’t let them know you’ve found the golden bullet until it’s close to the due date.

How to Avoid Becoming a Micro Manager:
Are you familiar with decompression sickness? Also known as The Bends.

Image 16 Diver (Public Domain Wikipedia Commons)
He has Radiohead playing through that hose. (Image Source)

The bends is a killer album by Radiohead, but it’s also a sickness that scuba divers face if the ascend too fast from deep depths. Nitrogen tries to escape the body as the divers ascend (because it’s been building up in tissue to fight the growing atmospheric pressures as the diver goes deeper). The result? Pain.

How to defeat the bends is similar to overcoming micromanaging: Take it one step at a time. Divers have decompression chambers. CMOs have consecutions. Ask your agency to show you concepts without headlines and copy. Egads, no! Yes. The ideas rule. There’s no chance of getting stuck “in the weeds” and nitpicking content. Then, after you gravitate to an idea, ask for it to be fleshed out. And on and on. Small steps. You know, like decompression chambers.

4. Hand-Washers

Hand-washers are hard to find.

In fact, they’re ghosts when it comes to making decisions.

If you find them, they respond with “whatever you think.”

They fear for their jobs. They don’t want responsibility (much like Pollsters).

They don’t even show up for all the meetings.

They give feedback to many different internal people, and lines get crossed because they don’t want to be tethered to a decision.

Hand-washers have many reasons for being hand-washers, of course, but I’ve found the most common reason is that they gravitate to one aspect of their job and fall in love with it. This could be research, travel, golf tee times, internal meetings, internal meetings about meetings, who knows. This is a detriment to every other responsibility they face.

They don’t want to play CMO. Too many decisions.

They don’t want to take a stand. Too many consequences.

They like their pay, their parking spot, their country club membership and they don’t want to jeopardize any of this.

Case Study: The Guts of Chipotle

Chipotle CMO Mark Crumpacker stated that his company’s mission was to “change the way the world thinks of and eats fast food.”

That statement alone takes guts. Luckily, Crumpacker (real name) has put his money — and his guts — where his mouth is.

In 2013, they created an animated short film and app-based game called “Scarecrow.” If you haven’t seen it, you’re the last human being on earth.

Scarecrow (Source FastCo)

Try to watch this and then go buy a hamburger. (Image Source)

This was not a Super Bowl spot. It was a short film released online, supported by an app.

Do you think a Hand Washer would have approved spending hundreds of thousands of dollars (or more) on a short film and app?

Of course not.

It took leadership. It took guts.

It took a visionary who wasn’t afraid of his fancy title or parking spot. He wanted success, whatever it took.

How to Deal with Hand-Washers:
When it comes time for a decision, do not proceed without their buy-in. If they have not accepted a conference call, DO NOT PROCEED WITH THAT CONFERENCE CALL. Ideally, find a lieutenant of theirs who answers the phone, is on your side, and can become the “wrangler.” He or she can hopefully throw a lasso around the CMO and hog-tie them to approve estimates, concepts and campaigns. If an ad misses a media buy, so what. Keep a paper trail and have the “coming to Jesus” meeting that so desperately needs to happen.

How to Avoid Becoming a Hand-Washer:
There will be certain aspects of your job that you naturally gravitate towards. Brilliant. Gravitate away. But part of being a CMO is that you are, by nature, a professional juggler. You must continue to juggle. If you so dearly hate a division that you want to poke your eyeballs out, then appoint team members to be your eyes and ears. Check in with them weekly. Keep your finger on the pulse of the brand. You are its champion and its caretaker. (You’re kind of like Jack Nicholson’s character in “The Shining,” but here’s to a happier ending.)

Image 17 Axes (Public Domain Wikipedia Commons)
Introducing the scariest axes I could find for free. (Image Source)

True story: One CMO left his home at 6am and drove 2.5 hours to tell us in person that we DIDN’T win a pitch for their brand. That, my friends, takes guts and leadership.

5. Wishy Washers

Oh, the Wishy Washers.

They change their mind the minute an advertisement runs. Then they change it again.

Siblings to the Micro-Manager, Wishy Washers don’t trust themselves and they don’t trust advertising.

The old adage about the CMO getting tired of a campaign and killing it before it ever runs is based on truth. I have seen this with my own two eyes and it is real. And frightening.

It happened to a radio spot.

It happened to a rebranding campaign. Rebranding! No one had even seen the project on the outside world.

Heck, I’ve had a Marketing Director tell me that marketing and advertising don’t work.

“So why do you pay us to create and place ads?” I asked.

“Because it’s in the budget.”

Because it’s in the budget. Ouch.

So when their sales start to tank, guess what line item is the first one to get cut?

You guessed it: marketing.

We’ve tried to pin Wishy Washers down by having them approve a creative strategy document. But no matter.

“Things change,” they say.

But for smart CMOs, they ask questions. They find the kernel of truth in a brand and bring it to life in a powerful way. Like Beats by Dre.

beats by dre headphones
(Image Source)

I’ve written before about asking questions like my four-year-old son, Crosby, and darned if Omar Johnson, CMO of Beats by Dre, doesn’t agree:

“We don’t just stop at the insight—I tell my team to act like a three-year-old and keep asking why,” he says. “If we ask an athlete how they use music to prepare for a game, they might say they just like it as part of their pre-game, it gets their head ready, helps them focus. From there most brands would ask about what songs they like, the athlete gives them a list and they consider that insightful. We continue to ask why. That’s how we get to interesting insights into how athletes use our headphones.”

-Fast Company, 2014

Keep asking why. Above all else.

How to Deal with Wishy Washers:
Keep a careful eye on scope creep. When you’ve surpassed your allotted revisions, which better be three, then hold the CMO’s feet to the fire for more money. This is not easy. It’s nerve-wracking, in fact, especially when the account is payin’ da bills. The trick is to get the Wishy Washer to understand consequences. If there are no consequences, the Wishy Washer will kill you. The consequence could be a missed deadline, the request for more money or a new look at the retainer.

How to Avoid Becoming a Wishy Washer:
Build yourself a team of talented people that you trust. Gather their counsel and make a decision. A/B test like nobody’s business. PPC ads, banner ads, landing pages, opt-ins, whatever. See what works and ride it into the sunset. Marketing is more measurable than ever, but it still contains a bit of magic and art. If you worship numbers only, H&R Block is hiring.

Now Go Build Those Brands.

So there you have it, the 5 biggest CMO mistakes that I’ve come across in my 16 years in the advertising business.

I jest throughout, of course, but I’ve lost many a battle to these mistakes. Luckily, there are more great CMOs than bad ones.

Keep your eyes peeled for the troublemakers, and help steer them into the light lest they stray from being true brand stewards.

Like it or not, the onus is upon you because you are the brand steward as well. “Brand” above all else.


About the Author: Chad Rucker is the founder of Lochness Marketing, which creates copywriting, content and ideas that don’t stink. And do convert. Chad has 16 years experience in the advertising agency world creating campaigns for Dunkin Donuts, Michelin and Verizon Wireless. Say “howdy” at @marketingisreal.

  1. Liston Witherill Mar 22, 2015 at 4:18 pm

    Great post, Chad. On the issue of CMO tenure in light of increased marketing measurement and ability to prove ROI…

    I think today’s CMO will start to morph into the CEO role of many Fortune 500’s. What I mean is that they’ll be looking at short-term, likely quarterly performance to demonstrate their value to an organization. The metrics will become as concrete as revenue in the next few years, which will naturally shorten the stay of CMOs. Just like playoff teams that don’t meet expectations…what do they do? Fire the coach. The same is true for CEOs. And the same will be true for CMOs as time goes on.

    The top is a lonely perch, to be certain.

    Thanks for your article!

  2. Yes Liston, the top is well compensated but lonely. A great example is how much money is being poured into social media with the promise of increased sales. But if you look at the numbers, social just isn’t pulling its weight in conversions. Is social great for branding? You bet. But if a CMO promises sales ASAP, it’s just not happening right now. And when those sales don’t show up, uh oh.

  3. Great post
    I hate how many of the problems you’ve pointed out are still being committed. To be too afraid to make a decision because you fear your decision could jeopardize your title (Wishy Washer) or to believe every service you offer is perfect (Micro Manager) are all things I’ve actually experienced and had to face since I started my own business.
    I wish this post could gain more publicity because it clearly deserves more.

    • Thanks Turhan, I appreciate the support.

      I’m not a young whippersnapper, so I’m curious how the current schools of business and advertising handle these issues, if at all. (And creative briefs don’t count.)

      My team often spends as much time brainstorming HOW to sell ideas as we do brainstorming the ideas themselves. Great ideas are worthless if you can’t sell them.


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