CMOs are the new CIOs — crazy or prescient?

A headline on Forbes caught my eye the other day: Are CMOs the New CIOs? It cites the Gartner study following the money from IT to marketing and concludes (emphasis added is my own):

The convergence between marketing and technology is undeniable, and it’s still in its infancy. Imagine a world where a brand’s success will ultimately come down to how well it can handle and leverage an infinite network of relationships and market interactions. That’s where this is going. Managing the network will be the key to new innovations, sustaining customers and creating a responsive nature for doing business. The technology infrastructure for connecting and distribution information is the linchpin to it all.

The question is are marketers up to the task. And eventually, if the CMO ultimately morphs into a CIO.

I tweeted the article, and Peter Kretzman — an outspoken CIO/CTO whose perspective I respect at many levels — replied back how crazy that was, calling it “baitful.”

Tweet: CMOs as the new CIOs is crazy, baitful

He’s right: it is baitful. And, if you think about the current state of CIOs and CMOs, it’s certainly easy enough to dismiss this oversimplified proclamation as crazy. Even I — a vocal advocate of growing technology leadership within the marketing department — admit that the headline seems over the top.

Until one day, suddenly, it may not be.

Disruptive Innovation Model by Clay Christensen

As a big fan of Clay Christensen’s model for describing disruptive innovation, I am amazed at how often this pattern seems to occur:

  1. Everyone is happy with the status quo.
  2. A new innovation appears that threatens the status quo, but it only seems usable for “low end” applications.
  3. The status quo leaders laugh at that: “It will never be good enough to handle real applications.”
  4. But that new innovation continues to improve, steadily climbing up the performance curve to bigger and more important applications.
  5. The status quo leaders continue to retreat further up the complexity curve: “But it can’t do this!”
  6. Eventually, the old status quo is squeezed into a niche and the new innovation dominates.

If you take the notion of marketers running their own technology as an “innovation” — enabled by the explosion of connectivity and computing through the cloud and a massive wave of marketing technology entrepreneurship — the narrative sure starts to sound like this pattern.

“Ha, it’s crazy to have marketers in charge of their own technology. Okay, well, maybe just let them handle their own ad networks. Okay, maybe just their own social media tools — those don’t require any heavy-lifting IT muscle. Hmm, they want API access to the CRM? How did they learn about APIs? Well, okay, they can have those under the following conditions. Wow, they built a mobile app? But the real online experience is in our data center… well, okay, they can use that hosted web content management system, less headache for us to deal with patches. But the business intelligence we get from analyzing all the data collected is… hrr, they’re experimenting with Google BigQuery for that?”

For marketing-IT evolution to play out like that, five things must happen:

  1. Technology for marketers must get easier to use.
  2. Technology for marketers must become more essential to their core mission.
  3. Marketing must have more technical talent directly within its ranks.
  4. Marketing leaders must become more savvy at technology management.
  5. The money for marketing technology must come directly from marketing.

All five of these seem to be progressing — in some cases quite rapidly. “Marketing leaders must become more savvy at technology management” is probably the slowest to develop so far. CIOs have a big advantage over most CMOs in that regard. But the incentives are there for CMOs to get smarter about that dimension of their domain, and subsequent generations of CMOs may possess such perspective natively. Their steps up Christensen’s performance curve might be small, but they are moving upward.

What was laughable yesterday, and crazy today, might yet be the new status quo in the future.

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3 thoughts on “CMOs are the new CIOs — crazy or prescient?”

  1. Excellent and thoughtful post, Scott.
    I’m in agreement (it’d be hard not to be) that CMOs and other execs are constantly moving up the ladder on tech awareness and involvement. And that’s a good thing. And the disruptive innovation you describe certainly is a common pattern we see, particularly with respect to technologies (e.g., mainframe to PCs, etc).
    But here’s where I differ: I don’t agree that disruptive innovation necessarily applies to organizations in the manner you describe. An equally good case, in fact, could be made for other executive roles that are also constantly acquiring new technical savvy (Finance, Sales, even HR, etc.).
    It doesn’t make sense to me, in short, to extrapolate further and envision a situation, a kind of general convergence, where a key role (CIO) can be viably eliminated (combined with another role in the manner you describe, where the CMO morphs into a CIO) simply because the CMO now possesses a heightened understanding and/or involvement with its domain. Areas of specialization still apply and are valuable.
    As my recent post ( ) pointed out, quoting Marc J. Schiller, tech-savvy business users ”don’t have the time or the inclination to work through all of the nitty-gritty details that are required to ensure that the systems they are putting in place do, in fact, collect and integrate data with other corporate resources. They don’t have the time or the expertise to evaluate the information integration and interface requirements a particular system may create. And they certainly don’t want to be on the hook for all of the data security and regulatory compliance issues that are growing by the day.”
    Perhaps you and others will argue that the tech-infused new breed of CMO will in fact take on all those aspects, and will do so cheerfully, but very little in my experience has indicated to me that this is the case. Rather, they focus chiefly on the advantages that new tech capabilities can bring them, and rightly so. Yet there had better continue to be someone out there who deals with a lot of the messiness behind the scenes.
    In short: it’s fine (but also a fine foreshadowing) when other execs “know enough to be dangerous” about technology, as long as they recognize that such dangers actually do exist and do matter. Far too many of this new breed of CMO, excited by the possibilities and what they can accomplish, gloss over those dangers, to everyone’s detriment. As in a baseball team, different positions exist for different reasons and focus. Awareness and overlap can of course be good, but deciding that a given key position has simply become extraneous makes no sense to me.

  2. Thanks for such a terrific counterpoint, Peter. I’m a big fan of your blog, by the way.
    The thing about disruptive innovation is that, very often, the innovation happens on a different dimension than the one that the status quo believes matters. I agree that existing IT leaders bring a tremendous wealth of knowledge and expertise in implementing and managing complex technologies. I don’t think CMOs — at least not in any foreseeable future — want to step into that role.
    But there are other possibilities. One is that an “office of marketing technology” (as Forrester calls it) is built within the marketing department, run by a technologist, but reporting to the CMO. Why would you do this instead of simply using the existing structure of a separate IT department? Because the technical challenges in modern marketing are more specialized and benefit from domain expertise. Having someone who deals with the “messiness behind the scenes” doesn’t necessarily require the configuration of an IT department as we’ve known it in the past.
    Another possibility is that the technology itself becomes easier to leverage with less complex IT integration. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that for mid-to-large enterprises, we’re still a long way from that in general. But in specific applications, we are seeing cloud-based and “consumer” products that work pretty well with minimal or no IT involvement. And in the small business market, where there was never an IT department to begin with, we’re seeing a veritable explosion in new IT-free technological capabilities. No enterprise would have touched those products, of course. But as those products keep improving, they slowly but steadily keep moving up market. (This is the classic setup for Christensen’s model.)
    There are other possibilities too.
    My point is that, if you extrapolate out 10 years, there are ways in which the CMO could end up having senior leadership over a large portion of the data and technology within the enterprise — at least data and technology that relates to the full lifecycle of customer experience, which seems likely to be the dominant category.
    Does such an evolution make sense for other departments, their technological capabilities increasingly owned and operated within their own ranks? Maybe. Is there likely to still be value in shared, centralized IT-esque groups — e.g., independent governance of regulatory compliance? Probably. Will there still be value to technical implementation and leadership talent, the kind of which has thrived in the IT department for the past 30 years? Absolutely. Probably more than ever. But the configuration of that talent and leadership may be look very different than it does today.

  3. Suresh Vittal

    Interesting post Scott. I have, for the longest time, advocated that the CMo must take ownership of their technology future. As you point out, Rob and I have done a fair amount of research on the marketing technology office. But with that said, It is laughable to suggest that the CMO is the new CIO. I could go into many reasons, some of which Peter covers in his eloquent post earlier. But the crux is this – the CMO’s job is hard enough and under siege without adding the CIO’s responsibility to the mix. Also, marketing technology is a specialized position – requiring marketing, data, technology, and above all change management skills. You cover this better than anyone I know in your blog. Few enlightened CIOs have shown an appetite for cracking the code with marketing technology. Most don’t want anything to do with it, or run in the opposite direction. I believe the future CMO is likely to be data driven rather than a pure technologist. And he or she will have a marketing technology officer reporting to him/her. To suggest that a CMO will become a CIO is trivializing both jobs.

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