Marketing & Advertising

How to Become a Chief Marketing Officer (Mad Men Need Not Apply)

How to Become a Chief Marketing Officer (Mad Men Need Not Apply)
CMOs don't just spend money launching commercial campaigns anymore. They're expected to be revenue generators. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry September 12, 2019

Only about a third of CMOs are career marketers. The rest have backgrounds that may surprise you. That's because the role of chief marketing officer is evolving year by year.

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Marketers looking for a spot in the c-suite shouldn’t assume that developing winning campaigns is their only entry point. Maybe that’s how it was in the old, pre-digital days, but today it’s a whole different ball game.

Creativity still counts in modern marketing, but the rise of marketing analytics has reduced its import. The job description for a modern chief marketing officer (CMO) includes overseeing a vast number of channels and platforms and proving the value of every advertisement and initiative. CMOs have to work with influencers, develop search engine optimization (SEO) strategies, and produce data showing a solid return on investment (ROI). They also need to know a lot of acronyms.

CMOs don’t just spend money launching commercial campaigns anymore. They’re expected to be revenue generators.

The days of Mad Men and three-martini lunches are over.

In this article, we’ll cover:

  • What a chief marketing officer does
  • The traits needed to thrive in this role
  • Educational commitment to become a chief marketing officer
  • The typical advancement path for chief marketing officers
  • The pros and cons of becoming a chief marketing officer
  • Is this the right role for you?

What a chief marketing officer does

Marketers used to be creatives, dreaming up glossy ads and memorable TV spots. The finance department would give marketing its share of the budget, and the chief marketing officer would dole it out to cover the year’s campaigns. The CMO and his marketing teams were revenue takers, not revenue makers.

Not anymore; today’s CMOs have to be revenue generators. At a minimum, a CMO has to clarify the year’s marketing goals and build the marketing department’s budget from the bottom up (to ensure that campaigns are cost-effective). They have to explain how each marketing effort will promote business development and improve the bottom line. To do that, they work closely with other teams, including product development, public relations, sales, customer relations, and even IT.

A CMO’s day-to-day duties can look very different depending on where they work. At a software firm, the chief marketing officer might be involved in advertising as well as target-customer identification strategy, product-market fit testing, and user and usage analysis. At a business firm, the CMO might oversee market research, market expansion, or brand awareness initiatives. And the chief marketing officer at a growing startup may be laser-focused on market research, lead generation, and brand visibility—or even on designing customer-facing apps to drive engagement.

This is a high-pressure, high-stakes position. The impact of any marketing campaign can be highly unpredictable, with quantifiable results available to all. It may not be clear why a campaign failed to drive profits, but it will be all too clear that something went wrong. When it does, the responsibility falls to the CMO.

That helps explain why CMOs are well-paid, earning about $171,571 before bonuses, commissions, and profit-sharing. But it may also be why chief marketing officer isn’t a role that comes with a lot of job security. The average CMO tenure in 2019 is just 43 months, less than half of the average CEO tenure.


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The traits needed to thrive in this role

Successful chief marketing officers tend to share specific characteristics.

They have:

  • Great communication skills, because in this role they must lead teams, convey ideas clearly to others, and interact with colleagues in many departments
  • Management skills, because overseeing such a huge operation requires organization, vision, and the ability to motivate others
  • Leadership skills, because your reports will look to you for direction and clarification of big picture objectives
  • Empathy, because marketers at every level need a deep awareness of other people’s needs and desires
  • Outgoing personalities, because a marketing career means spending a lot of time leading meetings and giving presentations
  • A passion for meeting goals that inspires that same passion in their teams

If you seek a CMO position, you’ll also need to be comfortable with owning a critical business function. Marketing is now a field largely driven by measurable performance metrics, and you will be responsible for meeting goals related to sales and revenue along with reach and brand awareness. There is no hiding or buck-passing when things don’t work out as planned.

You also need to be very comfortable with technology. The analytics technology of tomorrow will look very different from what you’re using now, and you have to be willing and ready to adapt. As a result, you will always be busy; your theme song may well become Warren Zevon’s “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.”

Educational commitment to become a chief marketing officer

There’s almost no chance you’ll find an employer willing to hire you for any position in marketing, much less CMO, if you haven’t earned at least a bachelor’s degree. The first step in your journey to becoming a chief marketing officer will probably be to pursue a degree in marketing, business administration, or communications. If you can double major in two of these areas or pursue a marketing major with a business minor, you’ll graduate ahead of your peers who also hope to become CMOs one day.

According to US News & World Report, some of the top undergraduate business marketing programs can be found at:

If you’ve already earned a bachelor’s degree in another discipline, don’t worry. Most marketing executives and CMOs working today didn’t earn a bachelor’s degree in marketing. There are other ways to get into marketing, from completing internships to taking entry-level positions. The longer you’re in the field, the less your major will matter. By the time you make it to CMO, you will probably have been in the field a long time.
Next, you’ll pursue a master’s degree.

Some aspiring CMOs choose Master of Science in Marketing programs, but if your goal is to find your place in the c-suite, you should consider earning a marketing MBA instead. Why? Because the coursework for Master of Science in Marketing programs is highly specialized, including classes like:

  • Branding
  • Consumer behavior
  • Digital media
  • Marketing strategy development
  • Public relations
  • Research and analytics

You’ll learn theories and principles of marketing, which are useful, but you’ll learn less about the core tactics you’ll actually use on the job (which most marketers learn on the job and by studying online resources for marketers). You will have the opportunity to network with other professionals in the marketing field, but you won’t have as many chances to grow your network outside of the field.

A marketing MBA, on the other hand, will give you a strong leadership foundation, a better understanding of finance, and stronger analytics chops. You’ll take classes in:

  • Digital marketing
  • Forecasting and modeling
  • Marketing channels strategy
  • Marketing management
  • New product strategy
  • Operations management
  • Sales team management

You’ll also do coursework focused on business concepts that can be applied in different fields. More importantly, many job listings for CMOs state outright that when it comes to education, an MBA is preferred, making this the obviously better option for marketers who want to become CMOs.

According to US News & World Report, the top marketing MBA programs can be found at:

A final thought: if you’re inclined to bet all the chips on a data-dominated future, you might also consider a Master of Science in Marketing Analytics or an MBA with a marketing analytics concentration.

The typical advancement path for chief marketing officers

Many chief marketing officers begin their careers in lower-level marketing positions like:

  • Event marketing coordinator
  • Marketing coordinator
  • Marketing specialist
  • Social media coordinator

Your first job will take you out of the realm of the theoretical (i.e., school) and into the realm of the practical. You’ll see how a real business applies the tools of the trade, and you’ll learn about tools so new that your professors may not have known about them. Make a point of absorbing as much as you can, whether you’re assisting on a campaign or leading a campaign of your own.

In general, marketers who rise through the ranks of marketing to become chief marketing officer have at least 10 years of experience along with an MBA. They may advance through roles like:

  • Advertising manager
  • Public relations manager
  • Brand manager
  • Social media manager
  • Marketing communications specialist
  • Community manager
  • Product marketing manager
  • Market research analyst
  • Director of marketing research
  • Director of advertising sales
  • Director of public relations
  • Director of marketing analytics
  • Vice president of marketing

As noted above, however, two-thirds of CMOs don’t end up in the c-suite based on their marketing experience. About one-quarter are hired because they have deep domain expertise in a specialization. It could be healthcare, technology, financial services, software development, packaged goods, or something else entirely. Whatever the specialty area, chief marketing officers with deep domain expertise have a comprehensive understanding of a specific product and target audience. Some companies seek out candidates for CMO openings that have this kind of work experience.

Other chief marketing officers are hired because they have strong analytical backgrounds, which are extremely useful in this age of big data-driven marketing. They may have been investment analysts, strategy consultants, business analysts, or sales managers, and so they’re well-equipped to create marketing strategies based primarily on ROI.

The pros and cons of becoming a chief marketing officer

CMOs earn a higher than average salary, and that’s a definite pro, but they earn it. This is a challenging job with the highest turnover rate in the c-suite. Chief marketing officers have to deliver set results even though consumer behavior can be highly unpredictable. And CMOs often don’t get the kind of support they need to succeed from other departments.

On the other hand, one big pro of becoming a CMO is that this isn’t actually a terminal position. There’s room for advancement, so long as you’re interested in becoming a CEO. According to a poll by the Global Marketing Center, 53 percent of business executives said that their current CMO could one day become CEO.

Is this the right career for you?

That depends! Marketing is a field that’s evolving rapidly, thanks to technology and changing consumer preferences. Once upon a time, there was no reliable way to correlate customer choices to marketing initiatives, and marketers were creatives who operated on gut instinct. Now marketers — and CMOs in particular — have to be analysts, proving that their efforts are increasing sales or awareness. The responsibilities foisted on CMOs and the performance measures they’re expected to meet are not always based in reality; hence the high turnover rate.

As technology changes, you can expect the CMO role to change along with it. AI, predictive marketing, and machine learning will all have an impact on what kinds of results CMOs will have to deliver, as will the growing focus on personalization and the customer experience in marketing. If that sounds exciting, then CMO may be the role for you. But if you’re hesitant to work in a world where every ad is tracked, every customer expects a boutique experience, and every move you make requires the input of the IT team, then it may be time to explore other aspirations.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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