The Sacrificial CMO

Vw Friday, I was wondering whether Mary Minnick of The Coca-Cola Company is a "sacrificial change agent," a woman who was destined to break the rules, antagonize her colleagues, and push the corporation too far. 

Adam Richardson wrote to say that we should perhaps also see Carly Fiorina of HP in this way.  Interesting. 

When I got thinking about it, I realized I missed two other candidates.

Kerri Martin spent 20 months at Volkswagen as the director of brand innovation. Martin has piloted Mini’s reentry into the US and Marketing Vox says she was "known as a risk taker."  She dumped Arnold Boston, the firm responsible for the spectacularly successful "Drivers Wanted" campaign in favor of Crispin Porter & Bogusky.  Crispin raised a ruckus with TV spots like the "V-Dub in da haus" (pictured). 

Whether Martin can be called a sacrificial change agent is complicated by her relationship with Crispin, the agency she brought to VW without the usual review.  (As we have noted before, CMOs have such brief tenures [~20 months] that they are sometimes obliged to bring agencies with them from their prior lives.)  It’s hard to tell.  Who was the change agent: Martin or Crispin?   
It was Crispin for instance who suggested the change of name from Golf to Rabbit.  Solman of BrandWeek continues,

Crispen has created many controversial campaigns for Volkswagen in its first year on the business; ads featuring frenetic drivers embracing their "Fast"; imploring GTI riders to "un-pimp" their rides; relaunching the Rabbit with over-reproductive innuendo; offering guitar giveaways for turning cars into mobile amplifiers; and producing shock spots for rubberneckers with on-screener Jetta accident ("Safe Happens"). 

The other candidate for "sacrificial change agent" status is Julie Roehm, the woman who joined Walmart to serve as its advertising/communications chief.  Roehm lasted just 10 months.

In retrospect, this was not a match made in heaven.  BusinessWeek calls WalMart "one of America’s most colorless companies."  And this is what Roehm says about herself,

I think part of my persona is that I am an envelope pusher.  The idea of change in general can be uncomfortable for many people, and my persona as an agent of change can prompt that feeling.

Roehm says Walmart "would rather have had a painkiller [than take] the vitamin of change."  (from Berner, as below.)

Riley says Walmart should have known better.

Give me a break. You didn’t know that Julie Roehm is a lightning rod? A change agent? You didn’t know that she had a track record for pushing the envelope in advertising, especially leveraging sex and sexual innuendo?

By this reading, it looks like Walmart was merely naive.  The likeliest scenario is perhaps that when Roehm saw how deeply Walmart was going to resist change, and decided to go out with a bang.  Her status as a sacrificial player was, in other words, thrust upon her.  "Go big or go home" turned into "go big and go home."

Here too the relationship with an agency, in this case Draft FCB, complicates things.  Who was the change agent: Roehm or Howard Draft? Was Roehm  being run by the agency?  Was she being pushed by the agency?  Was Walmart firing Roehm to get to Draft FCB?

This much is clear.  If someone IS a change agent in a deeply conservation organization, they will need external support.  And agency, with the deep creative and strategic pockets, are designed to supply this support.  The solitary change agent badly needs a partner in change, and as Tom Peters once said, innovation requires a "freak on the inside and a freak on the outside."  The agency serves as the freak on the outside.

Summing up

There are 5 points (or possibilities) to note here:

1.  The notion that some CMOs serve as sacrificial agents is perhaps encouraged by the fact that we have several more candidates to treat as evidence.  Whether Mary Minnick, Carly Fiorina, Kerri Martin and Julie Roehm all so qualify may be disputed, but the evidence is suggestive, no?

2. All of these candidates are female, a fact to reckon with in all kinds of ways.

3. One of these is to ask whether female CMOs are more eager to serve as a sacrificial change agent.  And if this is the case, what is it about the makeup, the training, or the generational character of these executives that they are more willing to "take the hit"? 

4. Another is to ask whether they being set up?  Do these women enter the corporation in good faith only to discover that the corporation has no intention of committing to change?  Given the choice of being true to their mandate or the corporation, they choose, (more willingly than men?), to be true to the mandate and suffer the consequences.  A systematic study of the sacrificial change agent would look at who profits from an outgoing change agent.  If it’s always a man, we might have grounds for suspicion.  Men are then the beneficiaries of female self sacrifice. 

5.  The last take-away here has to do with the agency.  If there is a new pattern here it a realignment of the agency-corporation relationship.  In the old days, the agency would serve as a brain trust, a conceptual innovator, of an organization that could otherwise indulge itself in a "rules and regs" approach to business.  In a perfect world, we might have expected this relationship to intensify. Now that the corporation looks increasingly like an Indonesia resort with a tsunami of change at its doorstep, we might have expected it to hope for a deeper relationship to the agency, to rely on it ever more completely.

But that’s not what has happened.  The agency world has been displaced and diminished by the new media, new consumers, new marketing.  Plus, its future watching abilities are not much changed from what they were 15 years ago.  It’s clear many agencies have not stepped up to the innovation challenge.  But even if this were not the case, the agency would still be estranged by the new realities of the life of the CMO. To get anything done in their 20 months at the corporation they have to "agency up" (as in "lawyer up"), and this has the effect of putting the agency-corporation relationship at risk. 

Ah, the planets of corporation are realigning.  What to do with marketing, that inconvenient interface with the world out there, remains a pressing question.  And the question is especially pressing for the CMO.


Anonmymous.  2007.  VW Marketing Exec Kerri Martin Calls It Quits.  Marketing Vox.  January 12, 2007. here

Barbaro, Michael and Stuart Elliott.  2006.  Wal-Mart Fires Marketing Star and Agency.  New York Times.  December 8, 2006. here. 

Berner, Robert.  2007.  My Year At Wal-Mart: how marketing whiz Julie Roegm suffered  a spectacular fall in 10 short months.  BusinessWeek. February 12, 2007.  here.
(source for the Walmart as "colorless")

McCracken, Grant.  2007.  Soul of the Corporation, Scourge of the Corporation. This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics. March 2, 2007.  here.

Postrel, Virginia.  1997.  The Peters Principles.  Reason.  October. here.  [This interview between Postrel and Tom Peters is the only source I could find for the Peters’ "freak" quote.  My wife heard him use the phrase at at Design Management Institute Meeting in (or around) 2ooo.  It’s a great interview. ]

Riley, David.  2006.  An open letter to Walmart, Julie Roehm and Draft/FCB. Brand New Day: Thoughts on marketing and advertising.  BusinessWeek. December 14, 2006. here

Solman, Gregory.  2007.  Kerri Martin’s Abrupt Exit Raises Shops’ Hopes.  Adweek.  January 15, 2007, p. 7.

8 thoughts on “The Sacrificial CMO

  1. steve

    There was a pretty recent article in the WSJ about the woman who runs Microsoft’s advertising sales force. It was a remarkable description of how she, as a complete outsider to Microsoft, had to learn to speak the corporate language to get them to give her the staff levels she needed to do her job. For a couple of years she was laughed off when she tried to get MS to take ad sales seriously. She came in as a “change agent” and was failing (but was ignored rather than fired).

    Eventually, she figured out that she had to quantify the payoff to each additional ad rep. Without that, the engineers and geeks would simply ignore her opinion. Once she had a model for revenues per person, she did very well at the annual budget meeting and got staffed up. Selling ads is still pretty alien to Microsoft’s culture, but al least they have a fighting chance now.

  2. jens

    What to do with marketing, that inconvenient interface…?
    not much.

    first of all the cmo is not be the only one who takes risks in aesthetical matters as positioning and such.
    in the new organization creativity is not kept out by the marketing guy – which actually i one aspect of his role as an interface – to deal with the funny guys and to translate emotions into numbers and vice versa.

    in the new organization an aesthetical discourse does not only take place in the advertising briefings but much earlier in the value chain – in product development for example.
    the new organization fundamentally invites risk and creativity into the heart of the corporation… and that calls for leadership. – the kind of leadership only the very big boss – omly the ceo – can provide.

    without any doubt the role of the cmo is changing fundamentally. as marketing loses its role as an exclusive interface, it will also lose some of the absurd pressure and expectainons layed upon this funny discipline.
    who believes that today you still can sell a bad product or crappy service through great and super precise or hyper creative marketing? too many probably… – but hey, enough others already know that this is not the case. and they are leading the markets today.

    i would go so far as to say: the need for organisational change enters through the old marketing interface. but you cannot deal with the new pressure through the old thinking “thank god we have got the marketing guys”. the cmo may break, marketing may break and fundamental change is inevitable.

  3. jens

    well spoken as the truly sacrificial cmo!

    – hey, what can i say… the way i see it, it is cristal clear!

  4. ac

    Sounds to me like most CMOs brought on board are expected to be change agents because as pointed out their longevity is on average rather short. So, unless they were brough it to keep the status quo (how often does that happen?) then of course they are expected to shake things up a bit. But I’m a little troubled with some of the terms and ideas floating around in this stream of comments. Looks like we are making that grand mistake of equating marketing with advertising with sales. Tightly related? Yes. The same? No. Each function has unique processes that should be viewed clearly for what they are, and what they are not.

    When new ad campaigns aim to redefine a brand into something that customers don’t associate with a company or product is a recipe for disaster. Not saying it can’t be done, but changing customer expectations and habits (the push argument) is always exponentially harder than identifying and responding to new or emerging customer expectations and habits (the pull argument).

    Are there any good case studies of successful CMOs that have enjoyed nice long tenures and understand the differences between marketing, sales and advertisement?

  5. Tom Asacker

    Sorry. I dont’ buy any of it. Change agents are internally driven by a vision of what things can be. Let’s watch and see if any of these “change angents” venture out and use their knowledge, passion et al to actually create something new.

  6. George Parker

    The comment that Wal-Mart should have known better is wrong… Julie Roehm should have known better. By their nature “Change Agents” are doomed to failure… No single person can change a company. Not even as the CEO as Carly Fiorina learned. Yes she did change a lot and the company suffered for it. You MUST understand the culture, particularly if it is a large well established company that has been doing things a certain way for a long time. Certainly, it cannot be done by a CMO of a public company that is destined to be driven by quarterly numbers… So that long term objectives are never given a chance to be effective. As for Julie pushing the envelope in terms of sex etc… No CMO worth their salt actually pushes the envelope. They leave that to their ad agency. Then if it fails they can blame the agency… It it succeeds, they can take the credit. If they had the creativity to originate brilliant advertising, they wouldn’t be the client, they’d be the agency. It’s a bigger stage for egomaniacs. That’s the way it’s always worked.
    George Parker

  7. Amelia Torode

    The fact that all these sacrifical CMOs were women really worries me – is it easier to get rid of senior women than men, do they leave with less of a fight?

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