Making Big Bets. How tech CMOs can make an impact and get the board onside in 2021

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Andrew Last

21 Dec 2020

In a recent client meeting the head of marketing asked us: “What do you think our ‘big bets’ should be for next year?” The thinking here was that rather than spread activity across multiple channels, tactics and campaigns, they would rationalise it into fewer programmes with greater impact.

‘Big bets’ is also a term used by The B2B Institute in its latest trends report, in the context of sticking to a consistent creative platform rather than constantly testing and learning. They quote Anita Elberse, a Harvard Business School professor, as a proponent of the theory that a big bet approach is more likely to break through and drive profits in a competitive environment.

I have to say that I’m pleasantly surprised by all of this.

In volatile times it must be tempting for marketers to play it safe and take a conservative approach. Especially bearing in mind that CMOs have the shortest tenure out of the C-suite.

And who’s likely to be the first out the door? Yes, it’s The Tech CMO: lasting just three years in a role, compared to 4.9 years on average across the C-suite.

This number is declining year-on-year and, let’s be honest, it’s unlikely to improve in 2021.

But why is this, especially considering the tech industry tends to attract some of the most talented marketers around?

I think it comes down to one key thing: confidence. Or more specifically, a lack of.

When Deloitte polled the C-suite they found that just 5% of CMOs consider themselves ‘high performers’, whereas 55% of CEOs, for example, rate themselves in this bracket.

It’s maybe not that much of a shock when you consider the perception issues that marketing as a function has had over the years – is it really still called the ‘colouring in department’? – combined with the exponential growth of digital moving some of the old guard out of their comfort zone. You can understand why many CMOs might feel out of sorts.

But, according to a recent Google study of 1,000 board members’ views on CMOs, there are concerns that marketers are too risk-averse:

“So there is something wrong with our marketing team. They’re so afraid to tip the boat. They like being understated.”

And they do rate marketing:

“Executives across the C-suite, as well as on the board, see marketing as more than just brands and ad campaigns. But rather, they see it as a core business driver of growth.”

And, encouragingly, they want their CMOs to be more visible and out there:

“I don’t think you get noticed these days if you aren’t trying new things, and trying new things means taking risks. It’s important to show some things you’ve tried are a little bit left field.”

It’s tempting to look at 2021 as a year of consolidation and making small bets. But by reading the room we can see that this isn’t what the business and the board want from marketing.

Whether it’s aligning the business behind a new brand purpose or finally going all-in on digital – it’s clear that they want CMOs to seize the moment, be visible and even take a few risks.

So what’s your big bet for 2021?