What does a chief marketing officer really do? These days it’s all about doing more with less

CNBC anchor Carolin Roth with Claire Cronin, senior VP marketing at Virgin Atlantic, Philip Almond, director of marketing and audiences at the BBC and Julie Woods-Moss, chief marketing and innovation officer at Tata Communications
Festival of Marketing

Making glossy TV commercials and showing them off to colleagues used to be the pride and joy of the chief marketing officer, but these days the role is dramatically different.

Working out how to do more with less and getting other executive team members to see marketing as revenue-generating rather than revenue-taking are now priorities for CMOs, according to a group of senior executives.

"Other parts of the organization have been expected to reengineer processes and so they can streamline their operations and deliver more return to the bottom line," said Virgin Atlantic's Senior Vice-President of Marketing Claire Cronin, speaking on a panel chaired by CNBC anchor Carolin Roth at this week's Festival of Marketing in London.

"For a long time, marketing was seen as, they didn't participate in that conversation, they were in the ivory tower creating beautiful ads and they were sacrosanct from that process," Cronin added. "Increasingly now, in order to be credible as a CMO, you have to be putting yourself forward to say we need to look at our cost base too."

How to boost your productivity like Richard Branson

Building marketing budgets from the "bottom up," or working out how to reach consumers in a cost-effective way, is now more common than a finance team giving the marketing department a pot of money and then asking a CMO to spend 10 percent less, Cronin added.

Explaining marketing to the executive team

Marketers still have a job in explaining that their activities can actually generate money for a business, rather than being seen as a function that spends money.

Julie Woods-Moss, chief marketing and innovation officer at Tata Communications, the telco arm of the Indian conglomerate, said that corporate functions such as legal and HR sometimes see marketing as a cost. At a recent board meeting her chief executive explained that some money would need to be redirected away from the core business and towards innovation.

"I was in the group with (the) product (and) sales (functions). (I) left HR, finance (and) legal in the other room, and by the time I got back they were already taking costs out of my budget and I realized how little they know (about the marketing function). The group I was in see marketing as a revenue generating unit, and the corporate functions still see me as a cost," Woods-Moss said on the panel.

CNBC's Carolin Roth with Claire Cronin, senior VP marketing at Virgin Atlantic, Philip Almond, director of marketing and audiences at the BBC and Julie Woods-Moss, chief marketing and innovation officer at Tata Communications
Festival of Marketing

But instead of saying to herself, "How dare they, I'm working my ass off," Woods-Moss resolved to spend more time with colleagues to show how her team can generate returns. Having to deal with these kinds of judgments and having a thick skin is also something she seeks out in candidates. "One thing I look for when I interview people is do you have that growth mindset, can you turn a disadvantage into an advantage?"

The CMO as commercial wizard

Doing more with less is also a theme for Philip Almond, the BBC's director of marketing and audiences, who has recently brought marketing back in-house.

"We are radically altering our ways of doing things. We used to use external agencies, (but) we've now brought them back in-house, saving £1.5 million ($2 million) a year. In doing so, we are actually making roughly 50 percent more assets than we were two years ago, because of the amount of variety we need. So there is a continual reassessment of how you are spending your budgets," he said.

Virgin Atlantic is also reducing the number of agencies it works with. The role of CMO is less about being a "brand magician," and more about being a "commercial wizard," Cronin said. "You actually spend a huge amount of time increasingly now with the procurement team and with the finance functions because all CMOs are being asked to do more for less."

The BBC's Broadcasting House in London
Carl Court | Getty Images

Digital skills

Dealing with the pace of technological change is also a big issue for marketing teams. "We often say at Virgin that change has never felt this fast but will never feel this slow again, because we recognize that there is constant advancement, particularly in the marketing space, particularly with the technology that it brings," Cronin said.

For Almond, owning up to not entirely understanding how the new digital world works is key to being a good CMO. "When I started work in advertising in 1984, there were only two commercial (TV) channels and your whole buying strategy was about whether you overweighted (media) in certain regions or not.

"I haven't grown up in this digital world, I know that a lot of people a lot younger than me that know about it more than I do, so you have to be happy asking the dumb question. Nobody knows anything about this stuff, and that's OK. So you really have to. For me, (the CMO role) is about co-coordinating the new expertise and bringing it together against the basics of how you build a brand."