One of my favorite bosses, a CEO himself, once said to me, “I told [the company who was acquiring our company] that you say CEOs should not try to market.” And to his credit, he left marketing decisions to me, saying, “You’re the head of marketing.” (That statement also contains a not-so-subtle reminder that I’ll live and die with the results of those decisions.)
Why shouldn’t CEOs try to market?
CEOs are not close to the real customer
When was the last time you saw a CEO at a focus group? They are very close to THEIR customer – the retailer or distributor – and call on them and meet with them frequently. However, they rarely, if ever, interact directly with the real boss, the end user/consumer/end customer. The closest most CEOs get is to read the Executive Summary of a research report.
Here is a guarantee: If the end consumer is happy, the retailer or distributor will be happy. If the end customer is not happy (Ex. s/he doesn’t like your products or isn’t swayed by your promotion), there is nothing that you can do to appease the retailer or distributor for lost sales.
CEOs know too much
No, I’m not sucking up having previously insulted them. They really have too much information to make smart marketing decisions. Every proposal for a new product or promotion will generate thoughts of how disruptive and difficult it will be, how different it is from the way they do things now, and how much defiance it will generate from operations, manufacturing, logistics, and others. All of that information clouds a CEO’s thinking and can lead to bad decisions.
A CEO once tried to sell me on producing and selling an umbrella stand. He pointed out that we already had the molds, the margins were good, the product was easy to run, and we “used to sell lots of them.” (This was an old company.) I asked him how many umbrella stands he had in his house. Crickets…
CEOs are short sighted
They are concerned about the next quarterly results, the next board meeting, or their next bonus. Many are loathe to invest in longer-term innovation, new market development, and brand-building promotion. Those are high risk, high reward propositions with longer timeframes.
Sad truth is, big wins usually take time; small victories can be quick, but big wins rarely are. Rumor has it that the iPhone took five years to develop. The average tenure of a Fortune 500 CEO is 4.6 years, so it’s not surprising that most CEOs are nervous about big ideas.
CEOs are risk averse
Because they report to a board and/or ownership who scrutinize their every move, they often avoid taking risks, avoid trying things that no one else has tried, avoid making decisions, and avoid uncertainty. That may prolong their tenure, but it’s not the way to generate significant growth and profit. Marketing, which is all about growing businesses profitably, is rife with uncertainty, un-quantifiable results, and uncomfortable choices.
The safe choice is much easier to justify, both ahead of time, and, especially, after the fact if it doesn’t work out. But being me-too and safe never led to greatness.
So, what to do?
CEOs: Instead of doing something you are ill suited for, hire someone, internally or externally, to focus on the end customer and make recommendations to grow your business and profitability. Pursue the best opportunities and trust but verify as they are executed.
Marketers: Understand the CEO mindset and the many pressures they face. (Everyone answers to someone.) Add value by helping them see the possibilities for profitable growth and make recommendations that combine solid data with amazing creativity.