CMO insights on growth: What clients say when agencies aren’t in the room

Written by: Karl Sakas

What if you could get inside the heads of your clients? Your agency could find ways to serve them better, as they deal with obstacles and new uncertainty.

We haven’t found a way to literally read their minds—but I have the next best alternative.

What is it? Studying CMO insights from the brand-side CMO networking group I co-founded and ran from 2016-2021.

The updates are anonymous, but the insights are actionable. And those insights just might help you attract leads, close sales, or boost retention—by better serving those in your target market.

Let’s look at how the downturn is affecting their businesses, what they’re talking about, what’s working today, and what they expect around recovery. Spoiler alert: They need your help… and they’re predicting a slower recovery than most agency leaders. [Written in June 2020. Last updated: April 2024]

CMO insights: The impact of COVID… and economic downturn

These stood out as themes during the CMO mastermind event in late May 2020:

  1. Most CMOs expected to make changes to their product and service offerings. Fully 60% said change things “somewhat” and 20% said they’d change things “radically.” (Note: This was a small survey sample.)
  2. Their CEOs were often creating pressure to sell sell sell. CMOs want to protect the brand from coming across as a hard-selling ambulance chaser… but I suspect some will find it hard to resist if the CEO keeps pushing.
  3. There was a thirst for quality content, including live digital events. CMOs are seeing more engagement in a single event than a typical month otherwise on the platform (including LinkedIn Live video and Tweet chats). And it’s not just engagement—they’re generating leads, too.
  4. Embrace opportunities to experiment and (like it or not) test your mettle. No one was thrilled to be facing these challenges, but finding ways to succeed today might well be the biggest challenge of their careers as marketing leaders.

Sound bites from the CMOs

The CMOs shared some interesting sound bites, too—these [anonymous] comments resonated to me as the moderator:

  • This isn’t “a pandemic”; it’s tens of thousands of pandemics. Every client or customer is in a different phase.
  • Customers are experiencing “shock & pause” (aka “permission to procrastinate”). They’ve stopped their buying process… so now what?
  • Marketing isn’t just convincing people you’re amazing… but that they need to take action immediately.
  • If you have a small prospective customer base, all the more reason to do Account-Based Marketing (ABM). In a small universe (e.g., several thousand prospects worldwide), ABM gives you an opportunity to be known by everyone, at every single level. And you don’t need a $30K+ ABM platform to get started.
  • Even as companies consider (or do) layoffs, they’re still concentrating resources on “high potential” employees.

CMOs on what’s working today

As we discussed what marketing strategies and tactics were working today, these points stood out:

  1. Try live events, whether via video (e.g., LinkedIn Live) or otherwise (e.g., Twitter/X chat). Companies are seeing big stats—more engagement in 1-2 hours than in a typical month on the respective platform.
  2. Don’t over-think or over-produce live events; there’s high tolerance for experimentation. Tap into existing networks (e.g., social followers, email subscribers, influence-oriented employees) for organic promotion.
  3. Refer back to your mission—your product and service delivery might change, but the mission doesn’t.
  4. Share about what your customers or clients are accomplishing today with your product or service. Make them the Hero, and (if applicable) help them connect with their customers.
  5. Unsure on what content to create? Look at the questions you keep hearing from customers. (But recognize that they’re likely bombarded with “offers to help in this unprecedented time.”)
  6. Remember that everyone is still experiencing annoying day-to-day problems; life goes on.
  7. Here’s a recap of the “pre-read” articles, as you sort through a wide range of signals: America’s Return to Depression-Era Values, Lead Your Team Into a Post-Pandemic World, 11 hypotheses on how life may change, and Purpose-Led Businesses Gaining Relevance.
  8. These came up on the Zoom chat, too: Confidence in ad spend, PPP loan forgiveness guide, unique greeting cards, and leading through a crisis. Speaking of the future…

Recovery timelines: CMOs predict a longer recovery timeline than agency leaders

Agency leaders and CMOs were not on the same page about their COVID recovery timeline predictions.

Optimism from agencies

When I surveyed agency leaders about the impact of COVID and their predictions for the future, I noticed a trend. Most agency leaders reported a somewhat negative or very negative impact. Looking ahead, most agency leaders predicted that they’ll recover by late 2020 to early 2021.

Pragmatism from CMOs

In contrast, CMOs’ recovery timeline predictions varied widely—anywhere from minimal effects (40%) to expecting 12+ months to recover (20%). That was more like mid to late 2021—significantly longer than the agency leaders’ predictions.

Implications for your agency from the CMO insights

I see opportunities for agencies that commit to serving their clients. When agency leaders report their sales pipeline slowed, I’m not sure they realized that… CMOs were reporting the exact same problem. Likewise, CMOs need help rebooting their products and services—and agencies who move up the Strategy Tiers might be a match to help.

Even if your agency isn’t sitting-in on CMO conversations each quarter for years, you can help them succeed through active listening—and meeting them where they are, not where you wish they were. Good luck!

Question: What stands out to you about the CMO insights I’ve shared?

Note: This article was published June 24, 2020, and last updated on April 17, 2024.

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