A few months ago, I published a piece about the challenges CMOs are confronting in the face of unprecedented change. The impact of digital technology is affecting everything about how customers interact with us and how we interact with them. They are savvier and more demanding, and there’s intense competition for their attention. Businesses need to move into the digital future or be left in the dust. I strongly believe CMOs should be at the center of this transformation, not just supporting the organization, but driving the strategy and execution.

So I was interested to see the results of a study we recently completed in conjunction with the Economist and Accenture that looked at how companies are managing their digital transformation initiatives. Two distinct groups emerged when we analyzed the data, digital leaders and digital laggards, revealing leadership characteristics that could serve as a model for those wanting to accelerate their digital transformation journeys and a potential roadmap for CMOs to provide more value to their organizations.

The study found that most companies have only made limited progress in both delivering a seamless customer journey on the front end and integrating their backend functions with their customer facing digital processes. However, we find that executives at leading companies see digital transformation as an opportunity and are proactively pursuing digital initiatives that can help them achieve market leadership. Instead of fearing change, they embrace it by moving to be the first to disrupt their own industries.  Leaders within these organizations are driven by the changing digital landscape and its implications for their industry and competitive dynamics. 

Given the role CMOs typically play in defining and championing the customer experience, it’s logical to think that significant opportunities exist for CMOs to add value and be key drivers of their organization’s digital transformation efforts.  I was surprised to see that CMOs play primary leadership roles in digital transformation strategy and implementation at only 16 percent of companies (and only participate in their governance 23 percent of the time).

This finding is reinforced by the fact that the Marketing function is seen as being of only average importance in ensuring the success of their organization’s digital transformations (with 31 percent of respondents rating it as “Very Important”), and as not having all the capabilities needed to fulfill their roles in ongoing  transformation efforts (with 73 percent saying their Marketing function needs to strengthen its capabilities in this area).

The responses reveal that CMOs have significant work to do to be able to play the strategic roles I believe we should.  While this data is sobering, there are clues throughout the study that should help CMOs focus on the issues that matter most.

First, CMOs should not be afraid to aggressively fight to play a leadership role in digital transformation. As keepers of the customer experience, Marketing is best suited to bring the needs of the customer into every facet of these initiatives. They should also help instill a sense of urgency by focusing on the potential benefits of achieving/maintaining market leadership in their industry. 

In addition, we found that executives at leading companies also place a high priority on improving the use of and access to data, especially real-time data. Real-time data now plays a critical role in personalizing the customer experience and gaining new insights into customer behavior.

Finally, CMOs should not be afraid to reach outside their own organizations to boost their digital capabilities. The study shows that leading companies are more likely to outsource digital processes to third parties, invest in digital startups, pursue a partnership or joint venture, or undertake a merger or acquisition to acquire the necessary skills.

As CMOs, we have the opportunity to help our organizations become digital leaders or remain laggards. What kind of CMO will you be?