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The Nimble Principles: Success in the Age of the Entrepreneurial CMO

The word entrepreneur is so bound up in a complex web of associations related to risk and daring and go-it-alone-ness that it was great fun (and greatly insightful) to unpack this word recently at The Economist‘s Big Rethink event in New York. The event brought together established industry leaders and scrappy start-up provocateurs to explore the challenges and opportunities facing “the entrepreneurial CMO,” a new breed of marketing executive which the good people at The Economist describe as being known for their “speed, agility, technical savvy and the ability to scale on a tight budget.”

While these are certainly laudable characteristics – maybe even downright super powers for entrepreneurial CMOs operating in the distinctly non-entrepreneurial environments of many Fortune 500 companies (a frequently voiced frustration among event panelists) – what most interested me was understanding the mindset and underlying principles that enable the entrepreneurial CMO to be, well, entrepreneurial.

What emerged in the tales told and opinions shared by leaders from GE, Unilever, Kellogg, Dropbox, and more is a portrait of the entrepreneurial CMO as a responsive and decisive leader who lives on the front lines, unafraid to get up close and personal with the consumers she serves, undeterred in the face of risk and ambiguity. What makes this new breed of CMO effective is not so much her access to the increasingly wide variety of tools and data, but rather the principles that shape her decisions and actions – what I’m calling The Nimble Principles.


“We need more synthesis, less analysis…fewer data scientists, more data artists.”
~ Raghu Krishnamoorthy, Chief Learning Officer, GE

Businesses are drowning in data and – to inform or justify decisions – the tendency for many CMOs is to gather even more data, to establish an impregnable beachhead of information that may inspire confidence and awe but may not always provide true insight into opportunities and actions. “Data itself is not an endgame,” said Thomas Ordahl, Chief Strategy Officer at Landor. Julie Herendeen, Dropbox’s Vice President of Marketing, echoed this sentiment when she said, “Sometimes quant data is not enough. We need a culture of inquiry around the customer.” And Jon Suarez-Davis, Vice President of Global Media and Digital Strategy at Kellogg, called for more people “who are adept at understanding human behavior.”

The lesson here is that the focus on amassing and analyzing large amounts of data, while at times important, can easily become a distraction and – worse yet – a hindrance. It slows you down and, being slowed, you may find yourself without a clear sense of what does and does not matter and what to do about it.

This Nimble Principle reminds us that it’s not necessarily how much you know about your target customers but rather how deeply you know them.

Perhaps Pamela El, Chief Marketing Officer of the National Basketball Association, said it best: “Look, your customers are not as creepy as you may think they are.”


“The future will not arrive in the containers of the past.”
~ Jon Suarez-Davis, Vice President of Global Media and Digital Strategy, Kellogg

Entrepreneurial CMOs welcome the risk inherent in reaching out for something new. They understand that control is an illusion and that the world – much like consumer behavior – is fundamentally unpredictable. The implication, says Raghu Krishnamoorthy, Chief Learning Officer at GE, is that “we can’t have control-based organizations in risk-based worlds.” It’s the job of the entrepreneurial CMO to build a tolerance for risk into her organization.

Penry Price, Vice President of Global Sales and Marketing Solutions at LinkedIn, illustrated how this is done. “The entire organization was given the mandate to take intelligent risks, to look at the upside and the downside of any situation,” he said. “An intelligent risk means that the upside must be three times the downside, and employees are scored on what intelligent risks they’ve taken on an annual basis.”

This Nimble Principle reminds us to continually toe the edge, to never be satisfied, to ever pursue what the poet Stephen Crane called “gardens lying at impossible distances.” Achieving these gardens is great, but even more important is that you set out to try.

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