Deep and Wide: the Expanding Role of Marketing Leaders

When I took my first job as a marketing executive, I had a CMO mentor who introduced me to the concept of T-shaped marketers and T-shaped marketing leaders. Basically, the idea was that most marketers, but especially the top marketing exec at any company (whether CMO, VP Marketing, Head of Marketing or any similar title) needed to have deep experience in at least one area of marketing, and broad exposure to many others.

That was nearly a decade ago, and things have changed a lot since then. According to a recent report done by Forrester, nearly 88% of organizations think that the role of a Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) has evolved recently, and will continue to change in the coming next years. For quite some time now, CMOs have no longer just been in charge of “marketing communications” and outputs. Instead, their role today is far more cross-functional in nature, and ultimately ties back to both revenue and customer experience.

What this means is that marketing leaders have experienced a need to go simultaneously “deep and wide.” As digitization continues, the tail of the T has only grown, with more niche expertise required every time new channels and technologies emerge that impact our work (AI-generated content marketing, anyone?). At the same time, marketing is only becoming more cross-functional, with marketing leaders expected to align with nearly every function of the company. Today’s CMO is expected to lead with extreme cross-functional agility and aptitude.

The Rationale for the Traditional T Shape

Here is a visual from Digital Marketer that helps explain the classic idea of a T-shaped marketer. Generally, the idea is that most marketers won’t have deep expertise in every single area of marketing. Rather, they usually specialize and have more extensive knowledge in one (or two, or as many as three) areas of marketing. As you can see, this version of the T-shaped model relates mostly to web marketing.

However, in reality, the visual above is focused on digital marketing, so it only shows a tiny snapshot of all the things that go into marketing. For that reason, every marketer will look at this and start to spot things that, in their experience, are missing. What about customer marketing? What about brand? How about PR and analyst relations? Where does product-led growth (PLG) fit in? That’s because marketing has become so diversified and complex that no single visual can do it justice anymore.

Also, every marketer’s T-shape will look different, depending on what types of companies they’ve worked at, what channels matter most for those companies, and even which industries they’ve worked in too. In fact, every company looking for marketing leaders is likely looking for different types of T patterns, although increasingly, companies that are more digitally-focused, with online or product-led business models, are more focused on growth marketing.

A More Modern Depiction of the T-Shaped Marketer

After scanning through seemingly endless variations on depictions of the T-shaped marketer, I landed on this visual from David Ly Khim, an expert in Growth Marketing (also a former marketing colleague of mine from HubSpot). What I like most about this visual is that it encompasses a broader cross-section of all the sub-areas of marketing that a modern marketing leader really needs to offer.

Source: David Ly Khim

Admittedly, I’m drawn more toward David’s T-Shaped Marketer depiction, because of his focus on Content and SEO as the core pillar. These are part of my own T-shaped marketing leader profile as well. You might be attracted to one of the many other visuals out there based on your own areas of marketing sub-domain expertise. While no visual can cover all areas of marketing, this one from David checks a lot of the boxes for me, to highlight what most modern marketers today really need. Some things, like product marketing, customer marketing and channel marketing are not really singled out here as distinct areas, but they are likely at least partially covered in categories like “partnerships” and “customer experience.”

The Concept of a T-Shaped UNIFIER CMO

There has been a lot of discussion about T-shaped marketers, and how the T-shaped natured work of these marketers is evolving. But what I learned from my mentor was that the T-shaped concept applied not only to marketers in general, but especially to marketing leaders. Changes are also taking place simultaneously, within the role of top marketing executives at companies around the globe. The role has expanded both in vertical depth and horizontal width, reaching into more functions than ever before, and thereby making the job of CMO even trickier.

McKinsey refers to this new breed of cross-functional CMOs as “unifiers.” They are masters at cross-functional collaboration, and “ensure that marketing has a clearly defined role in the eyes of C-suite peers; they adopt the language and mindset of other C-suite executives; and they articulate how marketing can help meet the C-suite’s needs.” In the same study from McKinsey, one CMO reported having “shifted the entire C-suite’s view of marketing spend from a P&L expense to an investment the company is making in its future.” That’s quite a big change in how marketing is viewed, in a fairly short space of time.

Below is my own visual to help describe this new dual-factor challenge. Today’s CMOs must liaise closely with more key areas of their company than ever before, while also overseeing a larger array of sub-areas of marketing than ever before.

Depending on your company, some of these categories under marketing may be named differently, or bleed into each other. This is just to offer a clearer idea of the core areas that most modern CMOs are now responsible for, especially at software companies. Obviously, each of these are also split up into many other sub-areas.

Let’s talk a bit more about the “unifier” aspect of the modern CMO. Today’s marketing executives face challenges from all directions, and need to be embedded in (or at least aligned with) nearly every function of the company. They have responsibilities that cross over into many different areas of business, such as:

  • Sales. More than ever, modern marketing teams are being held accountable for helping sales hit revenue targets. It doesn’t matter if you use inbound or content marketing techniques, more traditional outbound demand generation methods, or a combination of them. The number of channels has exploded as well. But all of these need to clearly impact sales figures. This means today’s marketing leaders have to be incredibly judicious with not only planning their campaigns and tactics, but measuring attribution in order to justify budget, and to showcase revenue impact. Alignment with Sales leadership has never been more important.
  • Product. In the past, CMOs typically had a product marketing team that handled most things related to product, usually overseeing product launch campaigns. The approach was one of alignment for certain, but it only really required product knowledge, and the ability to translate product features into benefits for customers. It did not require deep knowledge of how product teams and engineers actually work. Software companies are increasingly embracing product-led growth (PLG), which means that marketers have more and more involvement in user acquisition plays, activation campaigns, and monetization strategies to create a vibrant velocity with PLG.
  • Customer success. In the past, marketers could market to customers somewhat separately from traditional customer service and support teams. This often fell under “corporate marketing” at many companies. Today, CMOs and their marketing teams must not only align with the customer success teams and their needs, but because CS teams usually have their own quota for net revenue retention and individual logo retention, marketing leaders have to tread much more carefully. They can no longer send out an email blast to a client that might be in the midst of an upsell or renewal process, even if they are separately tasked with generating demand from within the install base. This can lead to a lot of messiness, especially if things aren’t organized cleanly in the company’s CRM software.
  • Finance. Let’s not forget finance, and in fact, perhaps this one should be at the very top! Especially in times of economic downturn, marketers not only have to justify their budgets and ensure alignment with their counterparts in Sales, but they also have to convince their CFO that they are spending money wisely. This can lead many marketing leaders to feel trapped, since not all experiments can offer instant return on investment (ROI). Marketers need to be able to take risks in order to embrace new channels and tactics, but they also have to make stronger business cases than ever before.
  • Human Resources. Employer branding and publicity related to all things around hiring and recruiting used to be primarily the domain of PR and corporate marketing, with input from the HR team. Today, this increasingly falls under the Human Resources of People Operations team instead, and marketing is not the owner but rather, consulted along the way. For marketing leaders, who used to control this area of the brand, the risk is that they can lose control over an entire aspect of how their brand is viewed by customers in the market along the way. Sometimes, employer branding efforts (and budgets) can even outweigh overall branding efforts. Within this evolution of the power dynamic, CMOs have to ensure strong alignment, lest they lose control over their brand perception.
  • Legal and Security. With data privacy and GDPR becoming important topics globally, legal and security teams often get more involved than ever before with marketing efforts. For this reason, the modern CMO also needs to “speak the language” of legal and security executives.

The Modern MArketer’s Biggest Challenge: Managing Internal Comms

The graphic I’ve provided above might make the modern CMO’s job seem simpler than it really is. To help visualize the complexity a bit better, let’s take a look at the mapping of internal communication flows that need to exist, within this new reality, in order for a business to function effectively.

As you can see, the challenge isn’t “just” that the CMO needs to communicate with all of the other C-level leaders at the company (as if that were easy). On top of this, the various teams that fall under the CMO’s purview also need to establish many relationships with various teams throughout the company as well. This is when things can get extremely complicated. In this graphic, you could argue that there are lines missing in many areas. Every company’s map will look slightly different. But ultimately, most CMOs at scaling software companies will experience a version of this.

You’ll notice that the green box at the very bottom, International Marketing, typically has the greatest communications burden, as this team cannot escape the reality of needing to interface with every single other department in the company. While many other teams just liaise with a handful of other departments, International Marketing teams typically carry a higher burden. Indeed, each regional leader tends to act as a “mini-CMO” of their own local market. Not only that, but they are usually also reckoning with time zone and cultural differences on top of what is depicted here, while helping to execute on international strategy, marketing localization, transcreation, and more.

Despite Growing Complexity, Marketing Leaders Must Stay Focused on the Customer

In essence, marketing has changed significantly in recent years, T-shaped marketers are now standard, and cross-functional CMOs are the new normal. But this has also made things more complex, and the job of marketers has gotten harder. When marketing leaders are asked to focus so much time communicating “wide” and inwardly within a business (across functions), while also going “deep” within the T-shape (in the various domains of marketing), there is also high potential for getting distracted.

CMOs can easily become overwhelmed, going both deep and wide at the same time, with the risk of ending up in a bubble. So, as marketing continues to evolve, demands on marketers grow, and internal comms complexity increases, the one thing I hope we won’t lose sight of in all this is the customer, and their relationship to our brands. This is, after all, the heart of every business relationship, and what every successful CMO really should care about most.