New research from Accenture has identified the qualities of the minority of marketing chiefs: innovative CMOs able to drive change right at the top of the organization. Accenture's John Zealley considers the three qualities they display.

Marketing, like most business functions today, is undergoing a profound change. A proliferation of new and accessible digital technologies, the explosion in availability of consumer and consumption data, combined with rapidly changing consumer demands and expectations, are flipping previously highly effective models on their head.

New entrants are capturing outsized bites of the market by proving, time and again, they can deliver the most relevant, the most engaging customer experiences. Among some incumbent companies, organizational inertia is setting in. And uncertainty about the most effective response is rife.

But there is a way forward. Indeed, there has never been a better – or more challenging time - to be a marketer looking for business growth. Rising expectations provide new consumer opportunities; new channels provide more occasions to engage and sell; new data provides more actionable and targeted insight; new technology allows for rapid, custom product development. In an ever-changing environment, consumer relevance is the key competitive advantage.

Enter the New CMO

Accenture’s latest research shows that a small group of marketing leaders – let’s call them “innovative CMOs” – are bucking the trend and showing the way forward.

Representing just one in six of the more than 1,000 marketing leaders surveyed, this cadre of agile, adaptive marketers are helping their organizations generate 11% higher shareholder returns on average than their peers.

The reason? Innovative CMOs drive transformational change at the highest levels of their organizations, helping the business respond quickly to changing customer needs and then reliably deliver hyper-relevant customer experiences.

Pivotal to their success is the way innovative CMOs emphasize the customer’s needs in all their thinking. Many marketers talk the talk about “customer-centricity”, but it’s the innovative CMOs who actually make it a reality, putting the customer front and center of everything their organizations do, whether that’s adapting the enterprise architecture, challenging business as usual, or adopting new technologies.

This, interestingly, is far more important to innovative CMOs than the size of their marketing budgets. Accenture’s research shows they don’t spend a significantly larger share of their budgets than their peers on either customer experience enhancements or innovation initiatives.

So it’s how they spend their money, not how much, that makes innovative CMOs special. And Accenture’s research shows they’re focusing on transforming their organizations in three particular ways.

1. They are taking the reins of innovation and disruptive growth

Innovative CMOs understand that meeting the ever-evolving needs of customers means effectively remaining in a permanent state of change. Adopting mantras like “disrupt, grow, change, repeat”, they constantly seek alternative sources of growth, whether through reinvented customer experience, breakthrough innovation or entirely new revenue streams. A key part of this is that they’re much more likely than their peers to be tapping into data monetization initiatives or new ventures.

In fact, the research shows these CMOs are 28% more likely to spend the majority of their time driving disruptive growth. They’re also 27% more likely to describe themselves as “innovators” who use emerging technologies to predict customer behavior and identify untapped revenue streams.

2. Challenging marketing orthodoxy

An outdated or unresponsive organizational culture can hold even the most progressive marketing function back. Unless the corporate mindset lets the business pivot with agility, understanding and accepting risk, it’s virtually impossible to adapt to the demands of the new.

This is where this group of CMOs really differentiate themselves. From the highest levels of the organization down to the nuts and bolts of daily operations, they’re prepared to reimagine how the organization thinks and how it functions. That means putting the capabilities and talent in place to adapt marketing agendas to shifting consumer attitudes in areas like multichannel experience, trust, transparency and personalization.

Their approach to data is central to this. Innovative CMOs are at the forefront of using data to drive new insight and new action. They’re instilling a culture that’s customer-obsessed and data-focused. In fact, they’re 26% more likely to say that marketing should own the customer record throughout the customer journey, ensuring their teams maximize the insights derived from that data.

3. Finding opportunities for growth through collaboration

Accenture’s research shows that innovative CMOs are more likely than their peers to be fundamentally transforming their marketing operating models. They recognize that breaking down barriers is crucial to unlocking growth. So that’s what they do, whether it’s removing silos within their marketing organizations, harmonizing their marketing operations with the rest of the business, or tapping previously unrealized opportunities with partner agencies and the broader marketing ecosystem.

Innovative CMOs are dedicated corporate networkers. They value their connections to other C-suite executives more highly – and they’re less likely to be satisfied with the existing state of collaboration in their organizations. So they take it upon themselves to spark a collaboration revolution, building alliances with HR, sales, finance, IT, and others. They do so to ensure the whole business has the necessary systems, processes and mindsets to deliver the most relevant experiences possible for customers.

No-one can pretend adapting to change is easy. But the innovative CMOs Accenture’s research has identified are showing how it can and should be done. For all the challenges ahead, the future is teeming with opportunity. In fact, for those prepared to follow the innovative CMOs’ lead, they may well agree that there has never been a better time to be a marketer.