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do professional service
firms need a cmo?

By Mike Antonczyk and Matt Hirschland Ph.D.

In October, we shared some observations from our work serving across the professional services and B2B landscape.

These were:

  1. The ugly trap of always having to be “the expert”
  2. Where event marketing strategies do and do not make sense
  3. How to side-step the increasing commodification of services

In this edition capturing observed trends across professional service firms (PSFs), we provide an answer to a question we are getting with increased frequency: Do we need a CMO?

The discussions we find ourselves in typically start with some basic questions:

How do we develop a firm-wide marketing strategy?

Do we actually need a firm-wide marketing strategy?

Can a CMO be successful in a role where direct reports are aligned to take direction from practice and geographic leaders?

Where should decision making rights for marketing actually be held?

Simple answers to these seemingly basic, straightforward questions can be elusive especially in matrixed organizations split by practices (functional and industry), geographies, and other real and imagined divisions. As such, we regularly witness a struggle between desires for centralized, streamlined approaches to marketing that are at odds with resources and priorities that often lie in peripheral (and powerful) performance cells that prefer to pursue their own goals absent centralized command and control.

This is further complicated by the paradoxes of marketing in most, and especially PSFs, where the problem is made more acute:

  • Marketing is great if you are the focus of their efforts; down-right horrible if you are not.
  • The push and pull of centralized- vs. performance-cell-directed marketing that most firms experience more often than not casts doubt about the staying power of any one approach creating incentives to go-it-alone.
  • Who gets the credit for success? The answer is typically not the marketers even if they are doing great work because credit for success almost always goes to customer and client-facing colleagues thereby relegating marketing to an order-taking, not order-making function at the whims of other organizational leaders.

But back to our question at hand: Do PSFs need marketing CMOs?

Our answer is a resounding if not qualified YES, with certain boundary and important enabling conditions.

And while we are cautious about overly prescriptive, one-size fits all answers about what great marketing looks like, we can say with confidence that the following ring true across firms large and small in terms of what works and what doesn’t:

What is NOT working:

  • Over-centralization. Over-centralized marketing decision-making has the effect of stifling new initiatives. It also engenders bitterness across firms and partnerships, having the opposite effects on growth as many tend to keep their heads down and avoid engaging finding that fighting the battles with the center to be unrewarding. Over-centralization offers more incentive for defection, ensuring you do not get the best of the organization or its leaders when it comes to promoting your services.
  • Marketing-led only. As a corollary to over-centralization, when marketers lead but are not supported by energized, engaged leadership, most initiatives tend to have poor traction and shorter shelf lives when not emanating not from the users and beneficiaries themselves.
  • CMOs that are not peers. Having a conversation among peers is fundamentally different than ones that involve leaders and their employees. Not empowering your marketing leader as a peer speaks volumes about how the function is viewed.
  • The promise of a “single firm” approach. Fitting every region and/or performance cell into a one-size fits all approach stifles marketers and region/practice leaders alike — leading to a loss of trust in the marketing function by those who can best tailor solutions to the particularities of the situations and client demands they see every day.

What we see that IS working:

  • Marketing as the articulator and steward of a brand experience and promise. Marketing can help ensure that elements central to your brand (look, feel, overall experience) are clear, resonant, and consistent across initiatives regardless of their origin, ensuring the intended design across all investments regardless of type.
  • A marketing leader as tracker and harvester of best practice. Great PSF marketing organizations and their leaders have built the sensing mechanisms and a track-record of trust for identifying best practices and helping scale them across the organization, leaving ample room for innovation everywhere.
  • Marketing as the home of powerful data-driven insight. Marketing that has its hands-on customer tastes, preferences, trends and a direct path to testing these in real-time is a most powerful organizational ally and asset.
  • Seeding and incubating high-level firm priorities. Freedom to innovate beyond the center does not preclude organizational priorities being seeded and incentivized from the center. Great marketing organizations and leaders have at their disposal resources to fund a portfolio of initiatives that can be driven by empowered and energized teams regardless of their affiliation (central or cell-based).

So yes, for marketing done well you really do need an empowered marketing leader — a CMO — whose role is carefully mapped to the goals, structure and culture of the organization. Ultimately, the answers to the questions our clients pose about how to specifically architect their marketing function comes down to what they believe is the “right” role for the function. Knowing what works and especially that which does not as described here, can help create the model for how to resource, and the proper flying formation to deliver modern marketing’s considerable promise.