The growth agenda: It’s a term frequently used among large firms, especially down mahogany row.

The concise phrase suggests that a company has a commonly agreed plan to achieve its performance goals for a set period.

But in reality we know this “plan” is quite often dynamic and not nearly aligned enough with all constituents, and yet we are expected to produce results on it.

Increasingly, it involves a call for organic growth, coming from the CEO, board, and shareholders.

And often, it’s on the chief marketing officer to deliver.

Then vs. now

Historically, the marketing team has been responsible primarily for execution of the communications plan — it used to be a service organization.

But today, the CMO is firmly planted in the C-suite and viewed as an important leader of the team.

Greg Welch, a longtime leader at Spencer Stuart and arguably the industry’s top CMO recruiter, recently shared his perspective on this important change:

It used to be enough for the CMO to simply have a point of view on the agenda, but now it’s truly about being a powerful force in shaping it.

For the first time, I’m seeing CMOs who are not only playing a major role in the overall company growth agenda; now it is quite common for them to also have specific revenue targets for growth.

Consider the role and legacy at General Electric of Beth Comstock, a vice chair and previously the company’s global CMO.

She and her successor, Linda Boff, have been tasked with delivering on not only the complex marketing plan, but also plans that enable the organization to drive important and profitable growth across new channels, summing to a multibillion-dollar growth target each year.

With inorganic options like acquisitions and partnerships exhausted for many, corporations like GE are realizing the best option for growth comes from being the first to anticipate and recognize evolving customer needs.

As past Walmart CMO Stephen Quinn said, “If you can own the customer, you’re in a great position to lead.”

Today we see the best CMOs take advantage of that desire for customer leadership, and this is the critical expectation invested in the role now.

Data-driven growth agenda

Precisely what does data have to do with it?

Owning the customer means utilising the data available to most companies today to precisely anticipate the customer’s desire and profitably steer the company toward its delivery.

Within the conventional boundaries of marketing, broadly, that means marriage of reliable, predictable and complete sales data with consumer sentiment information.

But if the CMO is to embrace the new expectation — to be at the center of the growth agenda among all C-level executives — then it also means thinking globally, financially, and in the terms of C-suite peers.

Farmers Insurance CMO Mike Linton suggests: “In order to distill the data effectively, the CMO must have a global overview of the company and be thinking future tense.

If you don’t have a good global overview of how all this stuff works together around your customer, and around your financials, you are not going to use the data very fairly for the company and/or the customer. 

You’re going to use it only for marketing. And then you’re going to lose credibility because you’re going to be the marketing person versus a business guy who’s good at marketing.

Clearly, the CMO role is then going through its own growth agenda, through proximity to the customer, greater availability and application of data, and the weighty expectation — and even tension — that the CMO deliver on the call for organic growth, with inorganic options largely exhausted.

Getting it done

It’s easy to point out highly visible executives like Comstock as success stories when they have already reached the destination.

The rest of us are in the trenches, still on the path to achievement.

If you accept that it’s the CMO’s role and the time is now, how are we to be good marketers, leaders, and change makers inside the company?

Here are some ideas from your peers rising to the challenge.

1. The best offense is a good defense

By now it’s a cliché: The best offense is a good defense. In this case, that means employing the data in advance to test the hypotheses you will inevitably be questioned on.

Linton has been challenged on the details of the marketing plan many times: “What are you doing? How come we’re not on Facebook? Why this campaign? Why are you focusing on this client segment? Here’s a good idea for a sponsor.”

He’s heard it all.

In response, he turned himself into a data experimentalist, quickly moving off his heels to the front of his feet.

He asked himself, what data do we need to get smarter about the decisions we’re making next year? And that put him back on the offensive.

The litany of second-guessing now meets with a response: “Look, we’ll run this experiment. I’ll let you know in six months” or “Here’s what we did. Here’s what we learned. That’s why we’re not doing it.”

Linton says: “As a CMO, if you say, ‘I just don’t like it’ or ‘I don’t think it works,’ that’s where you get in trouble.”

2. Speak the language

To be a leader, you need to connect with your team.

In the CMO’s case, the team is the rest of the C-suite, and given those executives’ respective areas of specialization – operations, technology, finance, etc. – the languages they speak vary widely.

Taking control of – and even contributing to – the growth agenda creates a burden to translate from marketing terms into the other languages of the business.

For example, as a CMO of a global organization, you may have responsibility over the digital transformation of the firm.

This means something to marketers but not to the chief financial officer.

A different approach might be, “Hey, Mr. CFO, I think I can get your attention if I talk to you about how I, as a marketer, can help you improve your revenue productivity.

If we can improve operational efficiency, if I can bring you dynamic pricing and reduce your distribution costs, if I can optimize marketing, if I can help you drive ancillary revenue.

This represents the kind of conversations United Airlines CMO Tom O’Toole has every day with his peers.

He drives the growth agenda through data for everything at United, from the cockpit back, with responsibility for mobile devices to Wi-Fi to beacons, omnichannel, social media, and the website.

Similarly, when he talks with the CEO, he might say, “Can we talk about how there’s a channel shift going on? Can we talk about employee satisfaction and irregular operations?”

These are matters the CEO thinks and cares about.

O’Toole speaks in the language of his functional peers, and as a result they trust him to drive the growth agenda.

3. Build a magnet

As marketers, we’re familiar with the need to create our own markets.

The most critical market one can build is at the core: the internal market for your ideas and the resultant desire for your leadership of them.

One measure of a marketer’s success is their ability to market themself.

And frankly, if you’re a good CMO, you ought to be able to market your own programs, interests, and strategies at least as well as you promote the company’s offerings.

Linton suggests the best way to do this is to emphasize pull over push, meaning you develop a market for analytics and your ability to provide them within the company first.

Get the company to agree on the problems to solve and serve them above yourself. Set yourself development benchmarks, beat them, and then let the organization come to you begging for more.

Once you have created and satisfied that demand across the organization, then you can lead.

Ironically, it’s the art of change management that enables the advantage of data science.

4. Failure is an option

CMOs have a great deal of responsibility, growth agenda or not. At the same time, business, technology, and markets change at a remarkable pace.

That requires a lot of effort and an outstanding team to deliver.

Alan MacLeod, NBC Universal’s vice president of IT, consumer products, and brand management, contends:

The team must be enabled so that everyone can take a piece of the CMO pie. In the successful data-driven organization, everyone relates to the growth agenda and owns a piece of it.

But to achieve that exceptional level of collaboration and accountability, the CMO must encourage an environment that pushes the limits — and sometimes crashes into them.

“It won’t always be done right, and it’s important to be okay with that,” Welch counsels.

The ones achieving long-term success are unafraid to fail, and the best ones are leading that cultural shift with their teams.

It creates an interesting dynamic on your team when you say, ‘It’s OK; we’re going to try some things. We’re not always going to get it right, but we’re going to continually get better about how we go about it.’

5. Know your limits

Leading the growth agenda through data is an exciting prospect. Many marketers are successfully absorbing the “big data” assignments and the personnel, budgets, and associated responsibilities to deliver as a result.

But don’t bite off more than you can chew. Beware the technology gold rush attempting to part corporate executives from their budgets.

Nary a week goes by without multiple companies suggesting they’ve devised the holy grail for leveraging big data insights via a new instrument or tool.

CMOs are particularly bombarded by these external forces and their messaging. Who is to know who is right or wrong? 

Welch likes the idea of each CMO having a “trusted big data consigliere: someone with the deep data-science technical knowledge who can help to vet each idea, and who cares first and foremost about the success of your business and is willing to test, learn, demonstrate a success, and become an extension of your team.

Today, the job of managing a complex CMO desk is simply too much to go it alone.

I see the best CMOs successfully engaging these external partners, especially those without conflict of interest. They are the ones having the most success today.