3 proactive ways CMOs can tackle the marketing-finance rift

Estimated reading time
7 minutes
9th January 2020
Author: Kit McKay
Posted in: People, skills and leadership

Gartner’s recent 2019-20 CMO Spend Survey found that the marketing-finance relationship needs a bit of work, to put it mildly. When asked which organizational function acts as the biggest inhibitor of marketing strategy, the largest group of respondents cited finance. Additionally, in 2019, marketing expense budgets in North America fell from 11.2% of company revenue to 10.5%, the lowest it’s been in years. 

An EY survey of more than 300 marketing and finance leaders found that there are several areas the two functions disagree on. When it comes to what marketing should prioritize, CMOs say they prioritize retaining and improving customer relationships, while CFOs tend to think marketing should prioritize using stronger data to drive growth more.

The two functions also seem to have issues agreeing on targets. 34% of CMOs and 25% of CFOs said they fail to come to an agreement when deciding which targets marketing should be aiming towards.

Despite this, both teams want to mend the relationship. 90% of respondents said they believe marketing and finance need to work more closely together on digital transformation. And 83% of respondents said their companies’ marketing efforts would be more effective if marketing and finance forged a closer working relationship.

In order to get the financial backing marketing needs to execute its 2020 strategies, CMOs need to be proactive in their approach to mending relations with finance. Here are three practical steps you can take to get on the same page as your CFO.

1. Improve transparency with better data tracking

A major hurdle every marketing team faces is how to prove the success of a marketing activity by tying it to the bottom line. Convincing finance that their budget was spent effectively when they view marketing as a necessary evil – a cost to be reduced where possible – can be an uphill battle.

“Marketing always seems a bit “woolly” to the finance department,” says Alistair Thompson, who works as an outsourced CFO for a number of companies.

He advises that marketers “be absolutely clear in their own minds about how they’re bringing in customers (or at least marketing qualified leads, if that’s how the process is structured), improving retention, generating referrals or whatever other business objectives the marketing has as that gives a solid basis for shared dialogue with the Finance Dept.”

When you start speaking the language of finance, in terms of quantifiable data that can be traced through to how it adds value to the business, this helps break down the communication barrier that plagues many of these relationships. But what about the marketing activities that are traditionally more difficult to connect to the bottom line?

Let’s look at content marketing, for example. Commissioning an agency to create a lengthy piece of content can often cost thousands of dollars. Over a year, content can eat up a significant proportion of the marketing budget – 29% of B2B and 26% of B2C budgets. 

Man holding bank card and typing information into a laptop.

The majority of businesses are still heavily reliant on antiquated formats to host their content, namely the PDF, that offer very limited insights like the number of downloads. If you’re faced with an angry CFO questioning the success of your costly content, downloads aren’t going to mean anything to them.

More modern content formats are capable of offering meaningful insights such as:

  • Performance metrics of individual sections of a piece of content.
  • Detailed tracking of how individual readers interact with a piece of content.

These metrics are proof of success to a CFO because they’re actionable and impact the bottom line. Sectional analytics offer insights into highly specific areas of interest among your target audience, inform future content creation, and give valuable pointers on how to improve and repurpose existing content. Individual reader tracking reveals true intent of readers, helps marketing offer highly personalized messaging, and provides sales with the knowledge they need to close deals more efficiently.

2. Involve finance in strategic decision-making

While better data tracking can help prove the success of a marketing activity retrospectively, getting financial support in the initial planning stages can still be challenging. Since marketing and finance are fundamentally very different business functions with the same ultimate goals, it’s often difficult for finance to be able to make the same connections you’ve made in terms of tying activities to those goals.

Andrew Warner, CMO of jobsearch site Monster, says, “One of the things I’ve found through my career is generally, if marketing build ROI models to prove the value of marketing in isolation, it’s always going to be treated with skepticism. There’s the risk it could sound like marketing saying ‘we’re doing a great job’ and finance saying ‘really?’ So then you end up in a them versus us situation.”

Two male deer fighting with locked antlers

To solve this, Monster’s marketing team actually brought finance into the strategic decision-making process to help them contextualize marketing’s decisions. This cross-functional team build the ROI model and use a data framework that relates back to the business.

“I think we’ve now got to a point whereby not just finance, but other functions, see that marketing plays a key role in terms of aligning marketing metrics with business metrics and that means that as an organization we are able to be more strategic across all functions and have more of an informed debate about some of the decisions,” says Warner.

The CFO, Tom Davidson, and CMO, Zoe Clapp, of UKTV have taken a similar approach to how they collaborate together. They see it as their responsibility as leaders of their respective functions to build a trusting relationship and then push that message down to junior members of the team. 

“I know that when Tom is making financial decisions he’s thinking about what’s the impact on marketing,” Clapp explains.

“Similarly, when I’m making decisions about the marketing budget or the direction we’re going in, I’m thinking about whether that’s a good use of the company’s money. Is that pushing us in the right direction we want to go in? There is that level of trust between us from looking at the company as a whole.”

Watch the full interview with them both here:

3. Less emotions, more behavioral economics

Lack of effective communication is largely responsible for the marketing-finance rift. The two functions tend to attract very polarized groups of people. Marketers are typically creatives and finance people typically more economists. This is a sweeping statement of course, but when it comes to vocabulary, the two functions traditionally communicate in very different ways.

In advertising veteran Rory Sutherland’s latest book, Alchemy: The surprising power of ideas that don’t make sense, he explores the unique position marketing holds within the business and why some of the decisions made by marketing don’t make sense to the other functions.

“We spend very little money and time looking for psychological solutions, partly because, in attempting to understand why people do things, we have a tendency to default to the rational explanation whenever there is one,” he explains. “The people at the top of organizations are largely rational decision-makers who are naturally disparaging of psychological solutions.”

A cityscape shown through one lens of a pair of glasses

The CFO is possibly the most prominent rational decision-maker within senior management. Justifying a marketing activity to them on the basis of how it will make someone feel can be very difficult. But marketers are very aware of the power of emotional levers.

“Marketing is the science of knowing what economists are wrong about,” says Sutherland.

Classic economic theory is an incomplete guide to human behavior. Numerical measures don’t drive all of our decision making, but emotional responses almost always do. Marketers understand the automatic, unconscious, under-rated pull of emotional decision making that drives purchasing decisions.

When justifying marketing expenditures to finance, changing the language we use can be one of the most powerful tools we can apply to get buy-in. Behavioral economics, although imperfect, are closer to the vocabulary and logic that finance people use every day. It’s a way of contextualizing psycho-logic and irrational emotional decisions in a way that finance can actually get on board with. If you are able to get finance’s support on these activities, the potential opportunity for the business could be huge, further raising marketing’s profile within the business.

As Sutherland says, “It is only when we abandon a narrow logic and embrace an appreciation of psycho-logical value, that we can truly improve things. Once we are honest about the existence of unconscious motivations, we can broaden our possible solutions. It will free us to open up previously untried spaces for experimentation in resolving practical problems if we are able to discover what people really, really want, rather than a) what they say they want or b) what we think they should want.”

This ability to recognize, understand, and leverage the human aspect of a business is one of marketing’s greatest strengths. Marketing leaders will continuously be faced with the more rational decision-makers within their businesses, but if communication is strong with finance, “irrational” decisions are explained through behavioral economics, and there’s actionable data at the other end to prove the success of marketing activities, then marketing and finance can work together to achieve key business goals and drive growth.