Soft skills trump functional marketing expertise, study finds

Leadership, communication and strategic thinking are the skills most prized by CMOs, according to new research, with functional experience lagging further behind.

LeadershipSoft skills around leadership and communication are more important than functional expertise to succeed in marketing, according to a new study.

Leadership emerged as the most useful skill for both CMOs and senior marketing leaders, followed by communication, strategic thinking, interpersonal skills and problem solving, according to research from Deloitte shared exclusively with Marketing Week.

Functional marketing knowledge is considered only the sixth most useful skill by the 38 UK CMOs and 34 senior marketing leaders/aspiring CMOs surveyed. Martech expertise came out as the least useful skill listed, followed by storytelling and data analysis and analytics.

Of the CMOs surveyed, many came from diverse backgrounds including prior roles as managing directors, CFOs, heads of research and development and creative directors, underscoring the importance of transferrable skills.

Being communicative, collaborative and resilient were highlighted as the top three most important personality traits for both CMOs and senior leaders to succeed, suggesting soft skills are key to building influence.

“Functional marketing knowledge is not really considered a top skill by CMOs and senior marketing leaders which is a bit surprising, but perhaps not when you consider that’s a prerequisite for being in a senior marketing role,” says Deloitte marketing transformation director, William Grobel.

“The skills that got marketers near the top are not the skills that will take them to the top.”

Over half (58%) of the CMOs and senior marketing leaders (64%) surveyed say making the right connections and forging networks was the biggest challenge they experienced en route to their current role.

This is followed closely by balancing work with other commitments (57% CMO/50% senior leader) and a lack of opportunity to develop skills and experience (48% CMO/43% senior leader).

The skills that got marketers near the top are not the skills that will take them to the top.

William Grobel, Deloitte

More than a third of CMOs surveyed (35%) say not possessing a formal marketing qualification has been their biggest challenge, compared to just 12% of senior leaders. Indeed, the Deloitte research finds 46% of CMO respondents do not hold a formal marketing qualification, compared to 35% of their more junior colleagues.

Marketing Week’s 2024 Career & Salary Survey of more than 3,000 marketers found 23.3% of respondents have a marketing Bachelor/Honours Degree, while 9.5% hold a Marketing Postgraduate Diploma. A further 11.4% have studied for a Marketing Masters Degree, while 0.2% of the Career & Salary Survey sample have a Marketing Doctorate.

Returning to the Deloitte research, 55% of those CMOs who did possess a marketing qualification said this knowledge was very or extremely helpful, compared to 30% of senior leaders.

While the number of marketers holding a formal qualification was lower than Grobel expected, he notes the power of informal training learnt on the job through graduate schemes or working in businesses with a focus on marketing capability.

“It can only be a good thing to keep up to date with your marketing knowledge and education, and foster that culture of curiosity. This is up to senior marketing leaders to engender in their teams, which enables them to keep up to date with marketing trends and adjacent trends in finance or AI or other parts of the business,” he adds.

“They then have that rounded perspective they need to elevate from running the marketing function to helping run the business as CMO.”

‘Skills vs oomph’: How and where are brands finding standout marketing talent?

For some marketers, however, a lack of formal training could be contributing to a stalling sense of confidence. When asked what they were most apprehensive about before starting their current role, the free text response from CMOs reveals concerns around imposter syndrome, getting to grips with unfamiliar data systems, coping with the workload and fears about not being good enough.

The sample also expressed doubt in their ability to do the role, with both CMOs and SMEs citing fears around the speed of decision making and being able to meet high productivity standards.

“Almost all respondents cited insecurities about their ability to do the job and these are some of the most successful marketers in the industry. Collaboration, communication, creativity and resilience are recurring themes about which skills are important to develop and overcome this self-doubt,” says Grobel.

The pace of change within the industry could be contributing to this lack of confidence, he suggests, as well as the sheer breadth of the marketing remit, with responsibility stretching across the end-to-end customer experience.

“That takes into account the finance department for pricing, HR for availability of staff, supply, logistics, distribution. It’s the end-to end of all functions of the business and all those have an impact on the customer experience,” Grobel notes.

“That’s what the CMO is ultimately responsible for, which may be why there’s a sense of insecurity, which is only natural given the scale and breadth of the role.”

Forming strategic relationships

The breadth of the marketing remit has a bearing on the relationships leaders must nurture across the organisation.

Half (50%) of the CMOs surveyed by Deloitte say the CEO is their most important strategic partner, followed some way behind by the chief technology officer (11%), the chief sales officer (11%) and the CFO (8%).

For senior leaders the key relationships differ, with their counterpart in sales (26%) proving to be the main strategic relationship, followed by operations (18%), finance (15%) and IT (12%).

Both groups spend approximately 70% of their time working with people outside marketing. The CMOs surveyed spend just 28% of their time working with colleagues within the marketing function, which rises slightly to 32% among senior leaders.

With marketing working as a catalyst for growth within organisations it is unsurprising marketers would spend a large amount of their time collaborating with other functions, says Grobel.

Almost all respondents cited insecurities about their ability to do the job and these are some of the most successful marketers in the industry.

William Grobel, Deloitte

“When we host our Next Gen CMO programme, the biggest learning they come out with is when they move to be CMO the job is no longer to run the marketing function. The job’s primary responsibility is how to run the business and that’s a big shift,” he adds.

“It takes them out of their comfort zone of marketing, which is what’s got them to where they are now. They’re sitting round the table with other C-suite execs running the business.”

Understanding the priorities of leadership is important for junior marketers, says Grobel, because it means when they speak to the CMO they can demonstrate how their work is driving business performance, which in turn arms the CMO for conversations with the CEO.

When it comes to how the role has evolved over the past five years, the emergence of different working patterns – in particular the shift to remote or flexible working – is the main change noted by both CMOs and senior marketing leaders.

This is followed by marketing becoming more data-driven with a focus on analytics, changing regulations and the use of AI. The list of changes to role over the past five years is rounded off by an increasing focus on digital marketing, greater pressure to demonstrate the ROI of marketing investment and an increased focus on sustainability.

“Remote working is biggest change when you aggregate both CMOs and senior marketing leaders. When you look at them in isolation, the one that stood out for CMOs was the use of AI within the role,” Grobel explains.

Adopting AI

AI has a role to play in content creation according to 66% of CMOs and 71% of senior leaders. The sample also highlighted a place for AI in improving customer experience (61% CMO/53% senior leader), driving operational efficiencies (53% CMO/65% senior leader), developing insights (45% CMO/35% senior leader) and market segmentation (32% CMO/29% senior leader).

The extent to which brands have adopted AI technology, however, is variable. Just 7% of the sample say their business is already using AI intensively and scaling its implementation, while 14% are using the tech in multiple pilots. A third (33%) have started prioritising use cases for AI, while a quarter (25%) are evaluating its use. A fifth (21%) of the sample say their business hasn’t even thought about GenAI yet.

Size of business could have a part to play in the adoption of AI. According to Deloitte, organisations with more than £1bn in revenue are 26% more likely to report a moderate or above level of readiness to adopt AI, compared to organisations with revenue of less than £1bn.

Can marketers delegate decision making to AI?

“CMOs are looking at how they can take advantage of these new technologies and a new global way of working to build more efficiencies in their organisations and more effectiveness as well. It’s a real catalyst for change,” says Grobel.

The data does, however, highlight concerns among marketers around the widespread adoption of AI, with 50% citing data and privacy concerns, 42% brand authenticity fears and 39% creativity suppression.

Looking ahead to how their role could change over the next two years, both CMOs and senior leaders identified a greater need to prioritise sustainability and social responsibility in marketing and brand strategies. This is followed by a greater focus on incorporating AI into marketing and the role becoming more data driven.

When asked what was driving these changes, free text responses from CMOs pointed to tech changes and the integration of AI across the whole business, the pressure to digitally transform to meet changing customer expectations and a need for greater personalisation.

The senior leaders questioned cited pressure on budgets as driving change, coupled with a focus general economic conditions and the need to optimise resources.