Valos Advantage: CMO strategic intent and tips for implementation

This is the first in a series of articles by Michael Valos created specifically to address the key marketing skills required of a CMO, as well as giving special emphasis to the non-marketing leadership and interpersonal skills CMOs require to ensure strategic intent becomes implemented reality.


Throughout 2014, we will explore six key skills central to a modern CMO: strategic insight, digital strategy, marketing innovation, commercial/financial acumen, customer insight and marketing metrics and lastly, brand management.

These skills are based on focus groups I conducted with CMOs and marketing leaders from organisations such as ANZ, AGL,Telstra, L’Oréal and Deakin University, and were validated by two highly respected industry experts: Christine Khor, managing director of Chorus Executive, and Anna Whitlam, managing director of Anna Whitlam People.

In addition to these skills, the CMOs I spoke to indicate that most junior and middle-ranked marketers never progress to CMO because they lack an appreciation for the non-marketing, or interpersonal, skills required by leaders. Instead, they think success is solely a function of strategic insight. These non-marketing skills include emotional intelligence, communication, employee engagement and conflict management, as well as training and recruitment.



Strategic curiosity and questions

Erik Zimmerman is CEO of a start-up energy efficiency organisation ( Zimmerman has strong beliefs that CMOs who excel at strategy need a future focus combined with an opportunistic mindset. His comments are based on experience at Unilever, AGL and ANZ.

“Great strategy comes from asking powerful questions,” he says. “Where to play? How to win? What capabilities are required to have an edge? What drives our economic engine? What one word can we be famous for?

“Strategy aims to be disruptive and answers rarely come from within. The best marketers will take time to explore the key strategic questions:

  • Where are we?
  • Where do we want to be?
  • How do we get there?


“It sounds simple,” Zimmerman says, “but great strategy is complex in thinking while simple in expression. Seek to understand what the future looks like and, importantly, how to leverage competitive advantage.”

Strategic alignment

Anna Whitlam, who has been recently involved in a number of restructuring processes at blue chip organisations, emphasises that successful CMOs align strategy with implementation. “The best marketing leaders are ‘the best’ because they have well- developed strategic insight. A modern day marketer with strategic insight acts and thinks commercially, appreciates and leverages the complexities that are part of an era of deep customer engagement, and encourages integration of marketing across all aspects of an organisation,” she says.

“Maturity, experience and a sound understanding of our new world will contribute toward one’s capabilities in this space.” In other words: without seeing the implications of strategic intent, strategy is doomed.

Strategic learning ability

The link between the technical skill of strategic intent and the importance of non-marketing skills is illustrated by the person I consider one of the best, as well as one of the most genuine, executive search and recruitment suppliers. Christine Khor explains it this way: “We can develop strategic insight in many ways – further study, reading, learning from mentors and coaches and broadening our experience. I encourage people to expand themselves intellectually but also in their work experience.

The ‘best’ marketing director is not necessarily the person who has had a linear and successful career within one discipline or industry,” Khor says. “Perhaps someone who has made a few mistakes and learned from them?”

360-view of technologies and functions

Increasingly, digital and social technologies inform strategic intent, facilitate strategy implementation and measure performance. One person ideally placed to comment on the impact of digital on strategy is Charlie Wood, area vice-president of Salesforce Marketing Cloud in Asia Pacific and Japan. “The inclusion of the real-time voice of the customer extends to more than just PR and brand marketing,” Wood says. “The companies in Australia doing this best have created a holistic strategy and integrated that ‘voice’ across all business disciplines: across sales, service and marketing. Companies with a successful social strategy, such as Vodafone Australia and Lorna Jane, are creating a real-time voice that connects with customers along every step of the customer lifecycle, breaking down internal silos.”

Wood offers a reason why this is imperative: “Social technologies have created connected consumers, who expect to engage with businesses on their own terms.”



Strategic intent is only half the story. An August 2013 survey by McKinsey and Company examined the role of the board of directors and found the most effective board directors “focused on overseeing the execution of strategy, making sure that people, processes and resources are in place to carry it out”. I suggest the most effective CMOs also have this executional mindset. If they don’t, there is little reason to prevent strategy being outsourced and marketing becoming a ‘brochure department’.

Three Cs of strategy implementation failure

Zimmerman provides an overarching implementation framework with his ‘three Cs’ of strategy implementation. First, communication failure occurs when no clear explanation of what the strategy aims to achieve and why this is important. Second, culture that comprises symbols, rituals, systems and behaviours misaligned to the strategy and, third, commitment.

In his view, you need to ask the questions: Are staff inspired or apathetic? Where do staff sit on the passion ladder in relation to this strategy? Do they have the view ‘it’s not my goal, it’s the company’s goal’? These implementation issues are developed in more detail below.

Cross-functional engagement

Whitlam believes engagement is critical in modern day marketing in order to ensure the delivery of strategic outcomes. “With the unstoppable growth of consumers’ use of social media, our ability to engage has become significantly more difficult,” she says. “Modern day marketing success will be determined through a function’s ability to integrate and become ‘one’ with the organisation they are there to serve.”

I believe social media is making Whitlam’s prediction or insight even more relevant. This is because the pervasiveness and power of social media is requiring a breaking down of organisational silos as it impacts the following functions: public relations, operations, service, sales, marketing and customer insights. It crosses organisational borders and forces organisations to align and break down silos.

Change management

One CMO I spoke to expressed concern at the level of expertise senior marketers have in implementation areas of communication and cultural sensitivity. Elly Patterson, CMO of McPherson Media Group, says that change management is a critical yet often overlooked skill for marketers when dealing with either new communication methods or new strategies. “The lack of this skill delays strategic projects more than anything else I’ve seen in the last three to five years. Often I see it coupled with a lack of clarity in leadership communication,” she says.

One explanation might be marketers focusing very strongly on the external changes they face in terms of technology channels in consumers and not having the mind space to think through the internal implications. It’s easy to see where information overload might occur as marketers attempt to keep up with change.

Recruiting and training

While strategy is generally developed by the CMO in conjunction with the board or external consultants at a high level, much of the implementation occurs at lower levels through the marketing staff. It is they who deliver the tactics, deal with external agencies and are often members of internal cross-functional teams. Marketers seek to have a blended skill set within their team and these skills can come from recruitment or training.

Khor says there has been a change in the philosophy of recruiting and training over the last 10 years. “Pre-GFC there was a commitment to hiring on fit and potential training occurring where necessary to develop the skill. However, post-GFC, with limited resources and leaner head counts, there has been a reluctance to train,” she says. “It has been essential for new employees to hit the ground running and training has been limited. Over the last 12 months there has been a realisation that potential, attitude, passion, motivation and values can’t be trained, while skills can easily be taught. Do you hire on attitude or skill?”

Some marketers I spoke to contrasted the quality and amount of mentoring that occurred a decade or more ago to the situation now when senior executives have no capacity to mentor more junior staff.

Two academics from the Deakin School of Management and Marketing, who research and teach in areas of strategy implementation skills, provided some insight.

Regarding employee engagement, Dr Justine Ferrer reminds CMOs of the role of employee commitment in successful implementation: “Employees are often underutilised as strategic players in the establishment and acceptance of an organisation’s strategic vision,” she says. “Without the support of the employees, the likelihood of strategic visions permeating the culture is highly unlikely. Employee buy-in to strategy is critical. Employees should be included in the formation and implementation process to achieve strategic buy-in and acceptance of the strategic vision.”

After all, the head of marketing can’t do it all.

Regarding diversity, the days of a homogenous workforce and the resultant risk of groupthink and lack of innovation are hopefully coming to an end, with the increasing acceptance of the powers of a diverse workforce. Jan Fermelis of the Deakin School of Management and Marketing says the biggest misconception with diversity is that many managers perceive it to be a disadvantage. “In fact, the opposite is true,” she says. “Diversity in all its dimensions – ethnicity, gender, age, etc – needs to be recognised as an important resource with the potential to assist the organisation to gain a competitive advantage when implementing strategy. A diverse workforce possesses diverse ways of thinking, diverse forms of logic and of creativity.”

One potential challenge I see with diversity and the different frames of reference between individuals is a risk of miscommunication and mistrust. However, Fermelis says the best organisations emphasise communication skills. “If communications are either unclear or inconsistent, the workforce can start pulling or pushing in different directions, which is precisely the opposite of what the CMO requires of strategy implementation.”

Excellent strategy formulation is clearly critical but, in isolation, not a sufficient condition for competitive advantage.

Next time I will explore digital strategy – what separates CMOs’ ability to identify the best digital strategy and what are the facilitators of digital implementation?




  1. This article reports on a Boston Consulting Group study that reported high performance for organisations that match their strategy-making processes to the external environment. Essentially, they argue two dimensions allow a matrix to be developed to guide your process: future uncertainty and an organisation’s power to influence an industry.
  2. The philosophy of blue ocean strategy is to get out of highly competitive markets and create your own market where you are unique and don’t face competition due to unique differentiation. Find a new market, which, like a wide, blue ocean, has only you as a participant.
  3. With Lego an exemplar of innovation and a great turnaround success, is it a case of the innovative being out-innovated? Why didn’t they see Minecraft coming? Was it complacency, a lack of core capabilities or a case of being on the receiving end of a blue ocean strategy?



  1. An article articulating the dynamic external challenges facing the CMO, suggesting that the CMO needs to be broader in thinking and with a mindset closer to that of the CEO. It reminds us of the complexity facing the CMO and the danger of being drowned in information and ignoring opportunities to ‘spread their wings’ vertically and horizontally within an organisation.
  2. This article, although only a brief summary of a full report for sale from Forrester, emphasises that innovation has never been so critical. Whether you look at the article attached or whether you look at the references included, there are so many opportunities to innovate a competitive advantage in an extremely disruptive environment. The interesting point with this report is the matrix of alternative innovation cultures – highlighting there is no one right way to innovate.


Michael Valos
BY Michael Valos ON 24 January 2014
Dr Michael Valos is senior lecturer in the School of Management and Marketing at Deakin University, co-author of Integrated Marketing Communication 3rd edition, and chair of Marketing's industry advisory board.