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The Rise of the (Unit-Level) CMO

Higher ed saw a notable increase of cabinet-level CMOs in the last few years. Will this trend translate to the unit level in 2016?

December 8, 2015
 

If you accounted for the types of activities that fill each workday, what would be the breakdown of substance versus trivia? In The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, USC president emeritus Steve Sample provides a dose of reality with his 70/30 formula. Even under “ideal conditions,” leaders can only spend up to 30 percent of their time on substantive matters; no more than 70 percent should be spent dealing with “trivial, routine, or ephemeral matters.”

Yes, there are plenty of gray areas, but I am sure that most of us would like to allocate more time to the most important matters – thinking about big-picture items, inspiring our teams, and doing work that aligns with top institutional priorities. (Sample notes that leaders must deal with the small stuff in order to maintain effectiveness over the long run. In his role, he called this doing president versus being president.)

If you are the lead marketer for a school or unit within your college or university, would the Sample 70/30 formula turn out to be the CEO (chief everything officer) 95/5 formula?

At the central level, marketing is evolving from a service function to a strategic function. According to a 2014 study by The Chronicle of Higher Education and SimpsonScarborough, approximately half of chief marketing officers report directly to the institution's president (or chancellor), and nearly 60 percent serve on the president's cabinet or leadership team.

These numbers will only increase. Cabinet-level CMOs are helping their institutions deal with market forces in a landscape of unprecedented challenges and ever-mounting competition. It has never been more critical for institutions to understand and articulate who they are, what differentiates them, and why their constituencies should care.

However, has this movement – CMOs gaining a seat at the leadership table – translated to the unit level within our decentralized organizations? From my vantage point, it appears to be happening at a slower rate.

The marketing continuum consists of brand marketing (driving awareness and affinity), direct marketing (generating a response), and experience marketing (delivering on the brand promise). When we factor experience marketing into the equation, everything really is marketing – everything from how prospective students feel when they visit our website to how new employees are onboarded before and during their first days on the job.

Higher ed marketers have diverse duties, and this is especially true at the unit level. At our university, many of the academic schools have CMO-type positions. As expected, their functions and reporting lines vary widely. (At our regional campuses, the majority of the marketing directors report to a vice chancellor for advancement.) In some cases, these are one-person or small operations, and thus staff members deal with the day-to-day demands of media relations, special events, and a range of other responsibilities. At the same time, they are trying to provide leadership for – and bring coherence to – a myriad of departments, centers, and institutes within their own unit.

Can you imagine an academic school not having a chief development officer as part of its leadership team? Marketing should be no different since it also directly affects the flow of resources into the unit.

Centrally, we strive to provide support, guidance, and resources to these units, helping them be as effective and efficient as possible with their marketing activities and expenditures. I give credit to the academic administrators across our university, because they “get it.” They both understand and value marketing.

Yet, those of us in central marketing roles must continue to advocate for our unit-level marketers. The more they have a place at the leadership table as direct-reports to the dean, the more they can help advance their schools’ strategic initiatives and the more our institution will benefit.

Rob Zinkan is associate vice president, marketing, at Indiana University. In his 13 years there, he has also served as vice chancellor for external affairs and assistant dean for advancement at two different IU campuses.

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