A marketing exec’s digital survival plan

December 5, 2011, 4:13 PM UTC

The Mad Men-esque days of dreaming up television spots and billboard campaigns over a three-martini lunch died amid the rise of Netscape and the digital revolution of the 1990s.

But with social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter quite established by now, “going digital” in the marketing world no longer means simply catching up to speed on newsfeeds and retweets.

Chief marketing officers, or CMOs, at most major companies know that — they said so in hundreds in a wide-reaching IBM survey released in mid-October. But they don’t always know where to go from there.

“Marketing was just easier in the past, there’s no question,” explains Philip Kotler, a prolific author and longtime marketing professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

Turns out hundreds of chief marketing officers share Kotler’s view. “The biggest takeaway for me was how under-prepared CMOs are feeling with what they identified as top marketing factors, from social media to changing demographics,” says Carolyn Heller Baird, who oversaw IBM’s survey, which involved one-hour in-person interviews with 1,700 chief marketing officers.

The two most troubling areas for CMOs? IBM’s survey found that 71% said they are under-prepared to manage the current “data explosion,” while 68% struggle with changes in social media.

According to a group of current and former CMOs, addressing the issue all comes down to trust: from other executives, from consumers, and from CMOs themselves with their own recent hires.

Few executives can do it all themselves, and marketers are no exception. But perhaps as much as any position in the C-suite, the job has gotten exponentially more complicated on account of digital innovation.

Plenty of information, but what do you do with it?

Marketers have been playing catch-up on social media since the first explosions of MySpace and Facebook, and several CMOs told Fortune they believe the initial catch-up is complete. But with so much new data available through such platforms, many of the CMOs surveyed by IBM said they struggle with how to use the information flowing in.

The growth in data available to companies — whether it’s advertising results or consumer feedback from social media channels — has created both opportunities and headaches. Kotler says that too many CMOs wind up over-extending themselves by trying to shepherd an array of projects all at once. “Choose two or three things that will have a highly visible impact on the CEO,” he says, as an alternative approach.

Experienced CMOs agree that marketers must manage the C-suite’s expectations and opt to put their stamp on a few key projects at a time. Peter Sealey, former CMO of Coca-Cola (KO), stresses that the CMO must stay in lockstep with the chief executive’s vision. “It’s the best job security a CMO can have.” Sealey says he picked just two critical battles during his tenure as CMO. When a consumer considered soft drinks, Sealey wanted that person to think of Coke first. Then when choosing a favorite, Sealey wanted the consumer to again turn to Coke.

The short average tenure of the CMO position – until recently ranging from 18 months to two years – has offered a narrow window for these executives to produce big-picture results. While chief marketers agree that the average tenure of the position is steadily on the rise, it’s still a difficult seat to keep at the executives’ table. “There are a lot of things out of your control,” Maryam Banikarim, CMO of Gannett (GCI), warns. “And, a lot of times, people leave because it wasn’t the job they signed up for.”

One way to keep the support of the chief executive is to earn more trust from consumers. Erin Nelson, CMO of Bazaarvoice and former CMO of Dell (DELL), says that when she took the job at Dell, the company’s relationship with its customers was in crisis. Her immediate task was to educate the engineers and the technical side of the company on why consumers were upset. The engineers were galvanized by the information and went to work on improving their products.

Admitting weakness, asking for help

“Digital means more intelligent buying” and smarter customers, Kotler says. “Word will travel on Twitter about the good guys and the bad guys.”

So how do you make sure you are one of the “good guys”? The CMOs surveyed by IBM say they first need to admit to a generational disadvantage. According to Banikarim, too many CMOs simply “hire one person to do social media and say, ‘Check, I’ve got that covered.’”

To be sure, it can be difficult to relinquish control to a younger generation of digital natives, even in cases where that’s the best approach. Lee Ann Daly, until recently the CMO at Thomson Reuters (TRI), warns that “control freak” CMOs might have a hard time leaving their fingerprints off of every effort.

The solution, however, is low-tech, the marketers say: Get the most out of younger employees familiar with new media by making them feel valued at the meeting table. “I’ve handled each turn of the technology change wheel by trusting younger people who are using it,” Daly says. “I can’t be expected to be noodling around in every space.” She joins Jim Stengel, former CMO of Procter & Gamble (PG), in stressing reverse mentoring as a way to both empower younger team members while refreshing CMOs working in the digital space.

Reverse mentoring is not new, but how it is used can be improved. Stengel explains the distinction neatly: the CMO must trust younger employees while staying engaged enough to know the good ideas from the bad. Stengel wants to see more CMOs going straight into consumers’ homes to directly build relationships, either in the flesh or through the digital space.

In other words, the lip service reverse mentoring that goes on at many companies, in which an intern might “teach” Facebook to a seasoned exec over a couple summer sessions, is no longer adequate — if it ever was.

The number of CMOs in the IBM survey who were able to strike an ideal balance with technical and social media was disturbingly low to Stengel, the man once tasked with directing the world’s largest ad budget while at P&G.

“That’s dangerous,” Stengel says. “CMOs need to get personally involved. Do you need to spend 80% of your time blogging? No. But you need to put your feet in the water.”

Doing so might seem difficult to CMOs who don’t recognize, as those in the IBM survey appear to do, that exploiting digital innovation actually means improving how we communicate with other people, even if it’s through social media.

CMOs can’t pull out a crystal ball to predict the next major disruptive digital platform, but they don’t have to stay caught in a constant game of catch-up. By investing in their relationships with coworkers from top to bottom now, chief marketers can put themselves in a solid position when the next innovation shockwave hits.