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CMO at the Cabinet Table

Effective marketing communications can be one of an institution's best organizational assets, so getting the right marketing chief in place is essential.
University Business, Sep 2005

At least once a month I get the phone call. A client wants to hire a chief marketing officer (CMO). Do I have a job description they can use?

This interest represents a dramatic change in higher education. Even a few years ago, this person, and position, did not exist. In fact, marketing was seldom seen as anything more than simple promotion. Today, as colleges and universities have begun to appreciate the potential that integrated marketing has to offer them, the position of the chief integrated marketing officer has become common.

On most campuses, the chief marketing person is a director. Increasingly, there are associate vice presidents or even vice presidents for marketing, or marketing and advancement, or marketing and recruiting. Subtle title differences aside, the trend is clear: Marketing has joined its peers in academics, advancement, recruiting, student services, and finance at the cabinet table. And it's about time.

A few understandings must be in place among the president, executive staff, and the board before a CMO joins the team. Start by considering the following about the role of marketing and the leader overseeing it:

A little expectation management can help determine the role marketing will play. Be clear on how you are defining marketing (promotion, integrated marketing communications, integrated marketing) and the role and function you expect it to play at the institution. Try to maintain a clear sense of what is possible and reasonable. If the institution is in rough waters because of mismanaged key decisions (or a lack of decision-making), a chief marketing officer will not help. The CMO can help guide decisions on quality and value, but a professional can't be expected to convey quality when there is none.

Marketing is an institution-wide function. It is not an office and certainly not an individual. There must be an attitude for marketing before there can be any action in marketing. (See "A New Definition of Marketing" in the March 2005 issue of UB.)

Everyone must be on board with the idea of a CMO. The new CMO will draw resources (people and functions) from other areas, and these discussions can get very political--and stressful--in a very short time. Having everyone on board a priori is enormously beneficial.

Recently I was helping a regional private institution look at a possible reorganization. We had talked through the principles of integrated marketing and everyone was in agreement--until I made the case that the publications office should be moved under the new vice president for Marketing. The vice president for Advancement would not budge. Rather than acting on principles, the senior team became mired in personality issues. In these situations, the president must make the final decision. That decision will send enormous signals about the leadership's views on, and values of, marketing.

You can't assign responsibility without giving authority. The new CMO will want authority over organizational decisions, whom to hire and fire, how budgets are spent, and even on creative. Resist the temptation to micromanage the CMO. If you can't trust this person's decisions, you probably shouldn't have made the hire.

Resources (time, talent, and treasure) must be available for the hire. We recently completed a project for a school whose leaders decided (against our recommendations) to hire a vice president for Marketing. They literally raided the marketing budget to fund the salary. In other words, they reduced the amount of money they had available for publications, their website, and special events so they could hire someone. At the very least, this is pound-foolish.

The emphasis on the term "integrated marketing" should be on "integrated" as much as it is (if not more) on marketing. With that in mind, here's a proposal for a bold organizational structure for a Marketing department.

First, a little background on the status quo: Most institutions have their marketing strategies far too decentralized. Publications report to one administrator, media relations to another, and advertising to a third. No one knows what the Alumni Office is up to and Athletics won't attend any planning meetings. There is no sharing of goals. No internal coordination. No pooling of talent.

Furthermore, it is likely that the individuals who administer these functions do not work from a single, coordinated plan. The marketing implications of this lack of coordination are potentially catastrophic. To solve this problem, I often suggest that colleges and universities organize their marketing activities--and those who will most benefit from those activities--under one, often very senior, administrator.

The implications of
decentralized marketing
functions with a lack of
coordination are
potentially catastrophic.

My proposed model links all the marketing (image building), recruiting, fundraising (the folks who benefit from a strong image), and student services under one CMO. (I have also argued for placing the chief student affairs officer under marketing, because of the impact this would have on retention, but institutions tend to be very resistant to that idea.) Others reporting to the CMO are the database manager and internal communications head.

This structure increases the likelihood of coordination, or, if you prefer, integration. It also puts the marketing head at the same table as the chief academic, student services, and finance officers.

Although this reorganization is my first choice, many will find these changes too structurally, economically, or politically difficult. In any case, consider the philosophical underpinnings of the model. Its purpose is to share goals and resources. Regardless of the organization, the degree to which you can share, or integrate, goals and resources may spell the difference between a successful institution and one that is marginalized. A president once reminded me, "When you don't have the cash, you better have the conversation."

It takes a special person to run this kind of organization. A CMO should be:

Acutely aware of the potential of integrated marketing communications. In particular, this person must know the relationship between brand marketing, direct marketing, and customer relationship management and how this functional paradigm can be used to support not only student recruiting and fundraising, but retention and internal communications as well.

This understanding should be more broad than deep. A CMO need not be a technician. Yet, knowledge of how basic, and sometimes not so basic, marketing tools work, integrate, and are evaluated is important.

The institution's marketing champion. As such, the person must be able to communicate an approachable, achievable, and captivating vision of what integrated marketing communications can do for the institution. CMOs are both strategists and catalysts. As strategists, they must be able to lead the planning effort. As catalysts, they must be able to generate institutional support for the plan's creation and execution. A CMO must make the case for marketing in a thoughtful manner and avoid platitudes and generalities.

The marketing team's leader. This involves creating and leading a cross-functional team with often different levels of understanding and motivation. Chief delegator and chief cheerleader are other crucial roles. CMOs must build consensus among as many internal and external constituents as possible. However, consensus must be viewed as a tool for a larger end. It is not a goal and should never stand in the way of timely decisions.

Data savvy. Besides being able to guide a primary research study, this person must also be an informed and sometimes skeptical user of secondary data. The ability to use data to synthesize insights and clarify options is a fundamental, yet sometimes elusive, skill.

A resource gatherer. Because time and dollars are scarce, and so precious, the ability to gather sufficient and ongoing resources is a primary skill. Without resources, the marketing will be little more than unfulfilled hope.

Absolutely trustworthy. This person will have access to data and be involved in ruminations and decisions. Secrets will be shared. A CMO must be able to hold those confidences closely.

Aware of the role universities play in today's society. Marketing officers hired from the outside tend to rant too quickly about the idiosyncrasies of colleges and universities that drive them crazy (i.e. trouble with focus, deadlines, and follow-through). The fact is, these idiosyncrasies are part of the DNA for most colleges and will likely not change significantly. The challenge for today's CMO is to figure out an effective way to work in the system and not to continually rail against it.

It's just one challenge for the chief marketing officer. Once a publications person, or perhaps someone with a background in public relations, the CMO has evolved into a leader of a broad-based, multifunctioned, integrated marketing team. These days the job requires a vision of what marketing has to offer, as well as the talent and political acumen to translate that vision into a concrete plan that generates results.

Bob Sevier is a senior VP at Stamats Communications, and is the author of Building a Brand That Matters: Helping Colleges and Universities Capitalize on the Four Essential Elements of a Block-Buster Brand, available from

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