Activity vs Results, and the Repentant CMO.

The Chief Marketing Officer of a global, public Fortune 1000 company had a Board of Directors meeting coming up. She asked me to help her prepare the slides she’d present to report on progress against a $30 million incremental marketing budget the Board had approved last quarter.

As I compiled research results, sales tracking and customer engagement data for the presentation, she stopped me in my tracks. “No, no. We don’t want to show them data and results, all we need to show them is that we’ve been busy.”

At first I thought she was kidding. “Keeping busy” surely would not impress a group of industry luminaries. Then I thought she had a brilliant strategy behind her plan to show how busy we were. Perhaps she was waiting until next quarter to deliver even bigger, even better results; and wow them all at once instead of leaking early, less substantial quantitative results of the work we were doing.

I was wrong on both counts.

Her strategy was to fly under the radar, and not give the Board anything quantitative that they could shoot holes in. Her plan was to “show activity, not results.” Her strategy had worked before, so she kept the habit up—Board meeting after Board meeting. For decades, marketers could not prove results, so “activity” was a successful means of reporting for CMOs of days gone by.

We are, however, living in a world where marketing results can be measured and analyzed. So, it wasn’t long before the holes the Board shot were not in her results, but in her ability to be a successful CMO for the company. She “parted ways” shortly after the next Board meeting. She blamed the company’s lack of commitment to marketing, and their short-sidedness of long-term goals and intangible results. The company blamed her inability to show tangible results.

Over the years, I repeated this tale to other marketing and business executives in large public companies. Some shook their heads in disbelief at the naïve nature of the CMO. Others understood where she was coming from—it was a strategy that worked before the days of Big Data and ROI-driven marketing strategy. Most thought she was an old-school marketer who hadn’t adapted to the results-driven marketing world of today.

A few weeks ago I ran into the CMO at a coffee house. It had been several years since she had parted ways with the Fortune 1000 company. She was now a consultant to other CMOs. I asked her what her key piece of advice was to her clients—“Being a results-driven CMO was critical to success,” she said. “Intangibles were no longer enough.”

It seems old dogs can be taught new tricks, and CMOs can repent and replace “activity” with “results” as their survival strategy.

Author David Allen Ibsen is CEO of Five Meetings Before Lunch, a market-driven business strategy company, with over 25 years experience helping emerging companies and established brands build effective strategies and programs when they’re ready to launch, pivot or grow. 

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