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Not There Yet, But Women CMOs Are Making Noise

Women make up 50% of the country’s population and only account for about 24% of C-Suite executives, according to a recent study from Korn Ferry.

But the percentage of women CMOs (29%) slightly outpaced their overall C-Suite average. And, it ranked higher than every other C-Suite role except chief human resources officer, where women represent 55%.

Two major CMO breakthroughs occurred this year when IBM and NASCAR hired women to take on the role for the first time, according to articles from Fortune and ESPN, respectively.

NASCAR this summer promoted Jill Gregory to senior vice president and chief marketing officer, the first time a woman has held that role for the auto racing organization. Gregory has worked in NASCAR’s marketing department since July 2007 and had prior stints at Bank of America and Sprint where she dealt with motorsports marketing.

Despite these high profile roles, women still lag far behind men. Korn Ferry’s study analyzed the top 1,000 U.S. companies by revenue in June. Peggy Hazard, managing principal at the executive search firm, notes that while diversity at the top makes a firm more competitive and that top leaders acknowledge having more women is important, little has changed.

Marketing, in particular, “is facing a conundrum,” says Caren Fleit, senior client partner and leader, global marketing center for expertise for Korn Ferry.

“In more junior positions, there is a level playing field between men and women, but the percentages of women plummet at the highest levels in the function,” Fleit notes. “Organizations need to create an environment to not only attract, but retain these high-potential female professionals. That includes mentorship programs, flexible working environments and clear paths for advancement.”

The CMO of technology leader, HP Inc., sent a letter to its five advertising and public relations agencies last month (September), insisting they hire more women and people of color, The Wall Street Journal reports. Antonio Lucio asked the agencies to turn in a plan in 30 days outlining how they will make big changes to elevate women and people of color to influential positions over the next 12 months. 

“Including women and people of color in key roles is not only a values issue, but a significant business imperative,” the letter reads. Lucio wrote that he expects the agencies to reflect the same percentage of women who make up his own marketing department, which is 50%.

Echoing Korn Ferry’s Fleit’s concerns, Lucio notes that the advertising industry has a “significant participation of women at the lower level,” but is failing to increase women to the executive ranks. Lucio also warned that if the agencies don’t act, “anything is on the table,” which could include being booted out of HP’s agency stable.

General Mills also has lost patience with its ad agencies. CMO Ann Simonds is leading the charge for those agencies’ staffs to be 50% women and 20% people of color, Ad Age reports. She adds that General Mills may be rare among its rivals in implementing similar mandates.

"It feels like a first” for the industry, Simonds says. "I think it's rare and it is important.” While HP and General Mills are pushing for more women in marketing and advertising roles, men CMOs still get the overall recognition as leaders and trend setters in the space.

Forbes’ “The World’s 50 Most Influential CMOs 2015,” report counts two women in its top 10: General Electric’s Beth Comstock at #5 and Macy’s Martine Reardon at #8. General Mills’ Simonds placed #49. 

Overall, Forbes’ list has 12 women in the top 50, representing 24% of the list. “In fact, women’s influence has declined from (2014), when 34% of the Top 50 were female,” the report notes. “This may be in part attributable to the fact that automative has risen to be the dominant industry sector insofar as influence is concerned while more traditionally female sectors such as apparel have dropped.”

One notable woman CMO on the list is GE’s Comstock, who was cited as the most influential among her men and women peers. Meanwhile, Michelle Peluso hit a career milestone when the 105-year-old IBM recently hired her as its first-ever CMO, Fortune reports.

IBM sees in Peluso “the ideal leader to accelerate and build on” as the firm remakes itself and how it markets to customers, says Jon Iwata, senior vice president for marketing and communications. Peluso served as CEO of online shopping site, Gilt, and also worked at Citigroup as its global consumer chief marketing and Internet officer.

IBM may have seen Peluso’s experience with consumers as key to its own efforts to sell itself as more consumer-friendly. Creating the CMO role points to “the transformation of marketing--investing in digital skills, using data to deeply understand clients…and building consumer-grade experience,” IBM notes in a statement according to Forbes.

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