Marketing Mastermind Thomas Barta’s Secrets To CMO Success

Marketing Mastermind Thomas Barta’s Secrets To CMO Success

Thomas Barta is a world-leading marketing leadership thinker, author, speaker and organisational psychologist. He is a former McKinsey partner and speaks to global Fortune 500 leaders about marketing from a CEO’s perspective. He conducted the world’s largest study on what makes an influential CMO and is the co-author of the book The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader. 

Barta is currently in Australia working with Adobe to help marketers come to grips with the challenge du jour: digital disruption and transformation. He took time out of his busy schedule to sit down with B&T and Adobe’s Digital Strategy Group Director for Asia Pacific, Jeremy Willmott. 

Barta believes that for marketers to be successful, they must lead rather than just practise marketing. He also firmly believes they need to be part of the corporate team and not treated as unique within the business.  

To arrive at that conclusion, Barta (and some colleagues) conducted the world’s largest-ever marketing leadership study (The Marketers’ DNA), surveying 1,232 senior executives from more than 80 countries. With the help of INSEAD Business School, Barta also analysed data from one of the world’s largest 360-degree databases, covering both marketing and non-marketing leaders. In total, the study involved more than 68,000 executive assessments. 

So what did they uncover? More than 55 per cent of marketing executives’ business impact could be explained by their marketing leadership skills. Only about 15 per cent by their technical marketing skills. Of course, most successful CMOs knew marketing well. However, they also excelled at convincing people, changing minds and making the case for transformation. Great marketers know how to make things happen. There is a strong case for a new school in marketing: leadership, he says. 

Make the CEO’s goals your goals 

Another feather in Barta’s cap is he’s the Dean of the Marketing Academy’s program to help more marketers into CEO roles. “In the marketing leadership masterclass, we asked people what are the top three priorities of your CEO? And sometimes they have to go back and ask; because they don’t know.”  

Through a process of discovery, Barta often unearths that the scholars’ projects don’t match up with the CEO’s objectives. “When this happens, that’s when marketers don’t have power. So, they do a lot of work. But it doesn’t get any traction. This is a huge challenge in marketing.”  

Barta says a lot of this comes down to the obscurity in what a marketer actually does. “The challenge for every marketer is to understand exactly what the company priorities are, and then make a call and say . . . here’s what customers want and those are the priorities within the sector that overlap with the company’s goals. Those marketers are the ones that are successful.” 


Despite his lofty achievements, Barta’s career wasn’t always so glamorous; his first big marketing role was looking after kitchen towels. “Nobody cares about this product. In fact, I sometimes felt a marketing role for kitchen towels only exists to make every other product seam really interesting. The chance to personalise your kitchen towel experience will be very limited if you’re honest,” he quips. 

“But personalisation works differently for different categories. Go to the extreme other end from kitchen towels and consider Walgreens Pharmacy in the US. Their customers buy their prescription medicines, as well as over the counter medicines, and they can therefore know a lot about their customers from this data. Walgreens can use this data to create a useful and unique experience when customers shop with them. They can alert customers when their scripts will run out, offer them new products, or remind them when they need to get their flu shot based on the previous one. As a brand, they can make really targeted and timely offers to people which makes personalisation so effective.”

Recently released research by Adobe however has underlined why it is important for marketers to find the right level of personalisation and understanding of customers at a personal level –interacting with them as individuals, in real-time. 

Rejecting age-based stereotypes, the majority (86 per cent) of consumers in APAC want to be treated as an individual with unique interests and preferences, with one in two consumers (59 per cent) saying they feel negatively towards brands that interact with them based on broad assumptions and labels, including age-based stereotypes such as Millennial and Gen-Z. Brands that get it right win customer loyalty, with the majority of Australians (57 per cent) advocating for brands that offer consistent and timely personalised experiences.  

Adobe’s Willmott points to airline, Air New Zealand, as someone who has got personalisation right. 

“When you scan your phone to get access to the lounge, the app sends your favourite coffee order to the barista so by the time you get to the bar, your order is ready for you allowing you to pick it up and go straight to a seat. It’s only a little thing, but if you’re a business traveller then that’s three more emails you get to deal with straight away. That’s a personalised experience that drives loyalty and referrals. Tell me a brand that does not want that behaviour from customers,” Willmott says. 

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