B2B marketers’ misguided fixation on the CEO

With increasing frequency, we are hearing a curious cry from B2B marketers, in all sorts of categories, screaming, “We need to get in front of our customer’s CEO!” Now without giving it much thought, you might nod your head and agree—after all, the CEO is the ultimate “shot-caller”. If you can get a meeting with her and get her to at least “recommend” your offering to the appropriate actual decision-maker down the line, you’ll be in an enviable competitive position. But the odds are that what it is you are marketing is not a CEO-level issue, and any efforts to get to the CEO are misguided and a waste of energy and resources. Consider what are likely to be CEO issues; McKinsey & Co.’s global managing director, Dominic Barton, recently gave his opinion on what are the top five issues that every CEO faces these days. They follow[1]:

  1. Boldly reallocating capital and people to growth opportunities each year (e.g., more than 10% change from previous year).
  2. Digitization and adapting to new technology.
  3. Building agility and resilience in the organization to react to shocks and capture opportunities.
  4. Revamping leadership development to focus more on “who leaders are” rather than “what they do.”
  5. Regulatory strategy and execution.

You have to agree that each of these issues is tremendously substantive and certain to have enormous ramifications on the performance of the enterprise. While not all CEOs’ top concerns could possibly be captured in just one list, the point is that the issues a CEO, or any other C-suite executive, does care about and does give attention to, are of massive importance to the business. While this stands to reason, it is all the more curious so many marketers these days believe their success depends on elevating the visibility of their offerings’ value to the CEO.

Organizations, as we all know, have pretty standard levels of seniority, and with each level comes a certain degree of decision-making authority. The C-suite makes a certain caliber of decisions, as the does the SVP level, the VP level, the director level, and on down to the managerial level—transitioning from the strategic to the tactical as you move down the ranks. So ask yourself: Which is really the best level to target your marketing efforts? If answered honestly and correctly, the vast majority of you should not answer the C-suite.

We recently helped a client redirect their aim from a CIO to a Chief Data Architect because, through discovery, we learned that the Architect was the individual who made the final recommendation to the CIO, and in the vast majority of cases the Architect’s recommendation was accepted. In the case of another client, we convinced them to down-shift focus to a Director level in Human Resources, while another client’s marketing was re-targeted to the Manager level.

Understanding the levels of decision-making authority within your customers’ organizations and where the decision to buy what your selling sits is crucial to effective marketing…and selling.