Brand Purpose Open Mic Marketing

Why the CMO needs to learn to speak the language of other c-suite execs

By Nataly Kelly, CMO



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April 30, 2024 | 7 min read

CMOs fight hardest to get a seat at the c-suite table, says Nataly Kelly (CMO, Zappi), but excessive marketing jargon often means they’re speaking a different language to their c-level counterparts. Here, she discusses how to bridge the gap.

A CMO talking to c-suite

CMOs have the fastest turnover among all c-suite members. This is a longstanding trend that is only getting worse year after year. According to the latest CMO Tenure Study from Spencer Stuart, CMOs working at the top 100 advertisers in the US had been in the role for just 37 months, or 3.3 years on average, the lowest level in more than a decade.

Moving companies so frequently as an executive isn’t easy, especially when the job itself is becoming more complex. The popularity of mobile apps has risen. Social channels have proliferated. Website footprint and SEO matter more than ever before. Abilities to track buyer behavior and their stage in the customer journey have increased. Combine all this complexity with the rapid adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) tools and post-pandemic shifts in macroeconomic conditions, and the pressure on CMOs has never been greater.

Paradoxically, this has resulted in a language that no one beyond the marketer (and maybe not even the marketer) understands. We have entered jargon and acronym hell with terms including “performance marketing,” “lifecycle marketing,” “revenue marketing,” and “growth marketing,” along with a host of acronyms that nearly necessitate a glossary of terms to understand, such as CTR, CRO, CPL, CPC, and many more.

While CMOs have arguably fought harder than anyone else to get a seat at the c-suite table, this complexity seems to be negatively impacting the conversations with CEOs and how they come across in boarding settings. So, how can CMOs reconcile this gap between their reality, which isn’t easy to explain, and that of the people who are less entrenched in marketing, such as the rest of the c-level leaders, and the board of directors?

The modern CMO faces a translation challenge

Often, this breakdown in communication is blamed on the relationship between marketing and sales. While there is truth to this, the reality is that it isn’t just sales leaders who find marketing complex.

Most CMOs don’t come from a financial background or hold an MBA. The average marketing leader is typically not as well-versed in the terminology that their board of directors and c-level executives use routinely to make financial decisions. This makes it challenging for many not only to natively engage in conversations that are primarily financial in nature, but also to express themselves in ways that other business leaders can easily understand.

When different groups of people cannot overcome what is essentially a language barrier, they require a bridge in order to communicate. Fortunately, there are several ways to bridge this gap in business settings.

Intentionally hire CMOs who demonstrate proficiency in both “languages”

One of the fastest shortcuts to fixing this communication barrier is by making thoughtful hiring decisions. At the recruitment phase, boards and CEOs need to make sure that any marketing leader they hire is capable of communicating with them using language that they can clearly understand. If a CMO veers too much into marketing language that seems confusing, they come off as fuzzy at best. At worst, they run the risk of being seen as incompetent because they cannot be understood.

One simple test of a marketing leader’s proficiency during the hiring phase is to have them prepare a sample presentation using marketing metrics, and to see how well they speak the language of their potential audience.

Make sure the board of directors includes people who are fluent in marketing

If you can’t find a “bilingual” CMO who is fully proficient in both the language of marketing and the language of the boardroom, it’s essential to have individuals on the board of directors who have had prior roles as marketing leaders. These individuals can be valuable ambassadors for CMOs, even when they are not in the boardroom.

After a board meeting has ended, the CEO typically has many additional conversations with board members in which the CMO is not present. This means that it’s very easy for people to revert to their own comfort zone of financial fluency and boardroom speak, leaving the marketing leader’s voice and viewpoint behind. If one or more board members are fluent in marketing, this enables the marketing leader to have their perspective more fully represented outside of board meetings.

Embed a “translator” on the investor side

Increasingly, venture capital and private equity firms are hiring marketing experts to either serve directly on their boards, or to advise their board members on how to better understand what is happening with their portfolio companies. In some cases, those marketing specialists can even support the portfolio companies as a fractional marketing leader during times of transition.

When I joined Zappi recently as their CMO, one of the reasons I wanted the job was that our investment partner, Sumeru Equity Partners, had such an expert working there who bridges both worlds. This individual is not only a veteran marketing leader but also filled in as a temporary CMO while the company conducted its search. Importantly, he was also part of the interview process.

Having witnessed the struggle so many CMOs face in making their work understood by investors, it was extremely important to me to have a partner I could work with on the investor side of the business who not only understands marketing but who intentionally selected me as their replacement. After learning about the needs of the company up close, he was in an excellent position to understand what was needed, in depth, from their portfolio company’s new marketing leader.

Learn to speak each other’s languages

The final, but least efficient option is for both sides to learn to speak each other’s languages. Unfortunately, this takes time. Some languages are harder to learn than others, depending on which one you speak natively. It’s not easy for people who are not immersed in marketing to become fluent because it is evolving at such a fast pace that even marketing natives struggle to keep up.

Marketers are likely better prepared to increase their fluency in boardroom speak than for others to immerse themselves in the opposite direction. After all, the core job of marketing is to understand your audience and communicate well with them. However, the reality of the average CMO today is that they struggle to stay apprised of all the changes in their own domain, making it challenging to even find the time and mental space to code-switch back into financial jargon.

However, marketing leaders cannot solve this problem alone. Communication is a two-way street. Boards and CEOs need to make changes to the way they operate and go about staffing and hiring to ensure communication breakdowns with marketing leaders can be prevented. CMOs need to reach across the divide, as far as they can, to make their world understandable.

And both sides need to demonstrate patience and maturity with each other, recognizing that these gaps in proficiency really do dictate whether communication, and thus, relationships end up being successful, that language learning takes time, and that all parties will need to improve their translation skills along the way.

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