From CMO to CEO: Could it work in #highered?

AdAge reports that Dick’s Sporting Goods has promoted its chief marketing officer Lauren Hobart to president. The appointment is “a rare move for retail,” writes AdAge’s Adrianne Pasquarelli, but not so uncommon for other sectors. “[A]s brands assign more responsibility and credibility to their top marketers, it’s becoming a more frequent trajectory.”

Elevating a CMO to a president or CEO role recognizes the importance of consumer-first thinking, said Jay Haines, founder of search agency Grace Blue. “It makes customers, and not costs, the focus of the business,” he said, noting that it makes sense to promote the person with the most experience of understanding the core customer.

Will we even see higher ed CMOs elevated to top leadership positions in our institutions? Perhaps some day, but higher ed culture presents a few speedbumps that don’t exist in the world of retail, such as:

A lingering skepticism about marketing

While marketing and branding have made inroads in higher education over the past two or three decades, some faculty and administrators remain skeptical about the value of marketing and branding — even as many of these same profs and former profs (read: deans and presidents) obsess over national rankings and academic reputation. (Skeptics among the faculty: Imagine that.) Even institutions that acknowledge the importance of branding and the role of marketing in elevating reputation may offer more lip service to the efforts than upper-level administrative support.

An aversion toward the “C” word

Take another look at the pull quote above, and you’ll see two phrases stand out that are rarely uttered in academia: “consumer-first thinking” and “customers.” Customer is still a dirty word in some higher ed circles. We don’t have customers. We have students, donors, corporate partners, etc. Related to the point above about academic skepticism, there’s the notion that higher ed marketers tend to think too much like private-sector marketers. This is true whether the marketer has spent her career in higher education or was brought in from the outside (a recent trend).

A lack of representation in leadership

According to a 2014 study on higher ed marketing by SimpsonScarborough and The Chronicle of Higher Education, only 8 percent of college and university marketing leaders bear the title “chief marketing officer.” That may be more a reflection of our preference for academic titles, and again, that might be related to the first point above. But regardless of title, slightly more than half of academic chief marketing officers are members of their institution’s leadership team or cabinet. Unless you’re at the cabinet level, you’ll struggle to move into the campus president or CEO position.

Marketing’s PR problem

In a 2015 post about the SimpsonScarborough study, I noted homed in on a section about our desire as marketers to gain more respect from academic colleagues for our contributions to our institutions. From the study: “Although the importance of marketing on campus has grown, the ways in which marketing contributes to institutional goals continues to be misunderstood.” Half of the higher ed marketers surveyed agreed with the statement, “Others around campus generally think the marketing department’s primary role is to produce brochures.”

Clearly, we marketers have some work to do to help leaders and colleagues understand our role.

But higher ed is not alone in this conundrum. Writes Mark Di Somma on the Brand Strategy Insider website: “[M]arketing function’s value is not often fully appreciated because marketing operates as a ‘gestalt’ between the understanding and insight obtained through hard data and analysis and intuition about the market that is the result of years of exposure to marketing research and trying to understand consumers from a deep psychological perspective. While the left-brain (analytical) portion of this is relatively easy to understand, the right-brain (intuitive) part is largely invisible and seems like ‘hocus pocus’ to most people who are more operationally oriented.”

The higher ed glass ceiling

At Dick’s, Hobart’s elevation from CMO to president broke two glass ceilings: a marketer ascending to the top spot who is also a woman. Hobart is one of the few females to lead a sporting goods company. For higher ed marketers, shattering the glass ceiling will likely require a Ph.D. and experience on the faculty (probably as a tenured professor). Several institutions have hired executives from the outside world to run universities, but for a marketer to climb the ladder to that top spot, he or she will have to have the requisite academic chops to pass muster.

* * *

Not so long ago, it was inconceivable that a chief development officer to become a university president. But that has happened. So perhaps what we think of as unthinkable today will become reality in the near future. Perhaps we will see a campus CMO become the campus CEO.

What do you think?

Image via Pixabay.


Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

4 thoughts on “From CMO to CEO: Could it work in #highered?”

  1. I think it will happen, and the first place we’ll see it is at a small private non-profit that is trying to reinvent itself…or has successfully reinvented itself, thanks to marketing leadership.

    I love that you keep bringing non-higher ed resources to conversations like this. As an industry, we’ve been too insular for far too long.

    1. Thanks, Liz. I think you’re on to something. Some of the obstacles I mention might not be as insurmountable for a small, private non-profit.

      And you’re right about higher ed being insular. Many fields are. But it seems that if any industry should seek out diverse viewpoints on topics, higher education is it.

    1. Thanks, Michael! I had a sneaking suspicion that somewhere, someone from the communications side had ascended to the presidency. I appreciate you letting me — and the readers — know!

      Walter certainly is a role model for communicators who might be interested in becoming a college president some day.

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