Q&A: Mark Evans on the ‘Plight or Flight’ of the CMO

Alex Sword


The Financial Services Forum

Direct Line’s former chief marketer Mark Evans was the keynote speaker at the Financial Services Forum’s 2023 Executive Summit. Here he reflects on the key points of his talk and what he sees as the key challenges facing CMOs.


FSF: Your session at the executive summit was titled “The Flight or Plight of the CMO” – how would you summarise the current challenges facing marketing leaders?

Mark Evans: The CMO job is one of the very best in the world when you are in flow and are able to create the impact that you intend.

However, from talking with and coaching many CMOs that is not particularly frequent. There are many derailers which mean that the CMO’s role is often massively challenged.

This is why CMO tenure is only half that of a CEO. And crucially, 80% of CEOs do not trust or aren’t impressed by their CMO (the equivalent figure for how CEOs view their CFO is only 10%). From what I see the five biggest burning issues are:

  • Mission impossible – from the outset the brief for the role was unrealistic because of insufficient resources relative to the size of the challenge.
  • Trust – specifically a lack of trust from C-suite peers and the board which creates drag for everything.
  • Customer orientation – it is easier said than done to be a lightning rod for customer centricity across the whole organisation.
  • Managing for the long term – whilst there is no long term without the short term there is often an over-focus upon the short term which eclipses and obscures longer term thinking and activity which means that you never get to the good stuff.
  • Data, technology and personalisation – the promise of CMOs having new levers to tailor targeting, messaging, service and relationship building with consumers often falls foul of a spaghetti mess for a tech and data estate.


One of the debate topics at the summit is whether marketing can get a seat at the top table. Why do you think this is still an issue in 2023 despite ample evidence of the value of marketing?

There are a multitude of reasons but it all boils down to the fact that it is not seen as important or valuable enough in many cases. And that’s largely not because Marketing isn’t important or valuable as a discipline but rather that it has not sufficiently demonstrated its indispensability. There is the old adage that if a CFO turns up to a meeting then the meeting is postponed but if a CMO doesn’t turn up to a meeting then it goes ahead.

CMOs need to inextricably link themselves to the business strategy and goals and consistently and coherently demonstrate how they are contributing to them. This is the rite of passage to earn trust and influence to become central to the process of setting the future strategy and vision for the company.


You talk about the limited tenure of CMOs – how can marketers ensure they make an impact?

I would say that there are 2 critical factors. Firstly the CMO needs to contract with the CEO on their mutual expectations. You could call this the “no-guessing game”. The global trust guru Rachel Botsman describes trust as “a comfortable relationship with the unknown”.

That means that you know what the other is thinking and doing when you can’t see what they are thinking and doing. In many ways a craving for transparency is the enemy. This explains why trust is so hard to gain and so easy to lose. By being really clear and aligned with the CEO then you can’t ever drift too far from the prize.

The second is that CMOs need to balance their impact across commercial, strategic, personal and personal dimensions. Through my research I have developed a scorecard against this which represents a sat nav for what CMOs need to take care of.

Unfortunately, it is very much a weakest link thing but there are strategies and tactics across all of these to ensure that the biggest fires are dealt with.


What do you mean by the “Virtuous Circle” for CMOs?

This is the sweet spot when the CMO has moved beyond the initial survivalism phase and starts to see the fruits of their labour.

The ascending CMO is on the top table, regularly interacts with the board, has challenging but realistic accountabilities and targets, has broad ownership for all aspects of the customer agenda, and is seen as indispensable to strategy creation. When this happens the CMO is the best job in the world.


How do you think technology and data, particularly AI, will change the role of the CMO?

The theory is tantalising in that marketing can make ever smarter data-driven decisions through the funnel to drive greater levels of effectiveness. The golden ticket of achieving more for less.

That will happen over time but at different speeds in different businesses. We are seeing more use cases emerging for personalisation driven by data and tech and nearly all businesses are experimenting with GenAI across the customer lifecycle.

But the reality is that in many businesses the legacy technology and data infrastructure is a significant constraint to realising the latent potential. A true single voice of the customer and genuine connectivity across the myriad of systems are often a dream for the future rather than a reality today.

Patience will be required but what is already clear is that the CMO’s new best friend is the CIO/CTO and that looks set to continue.


You stepped down from Direct Line at the end of 2022 – what projects are you working on at the moment?

I have stepped into a portfolio space. This was quite deliberately planned from a while back with the intent to have more fun, more learning and to help more people and businesses.

I have been very fortunate to fairly quickly build a delicious fruit salad of roles combining CMO coaching with a number of NED and advisory roles for Accenture, the Marketing Society, the Marketing Academy, Saracens Rugby, HMRC, The Institute for Customer Services, The UK Sepsis Trust, Save the Children, OnSide, The School of Marketing, Emma3D (a digital twin scale-up), and the Digital Marketing Institute.

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