Drapers explores the rise of the role of the chief growth officer and asks whether retailers should be bolstering their boards with this appointment.
Hands up who can define the role of the chief growth officer (CGO)? Asos’s appointment in December of Robert Birge to this position has left retailers in a state of confusion. Is it a dressed-up chief marketing officer (CMO)? A new customer-focused role? Or a strategy director?
Asos hired Birge – former president of ecommerce at health company Blink Health – as its first CGO to be “responsible for the establishment and acceleration of current business growth and paving the way for sustained future development”, the job ad said. It continued: “Reporting to the CGO will be a leadership team responsible across the marketing function including brand experience and customer insights. Customer care, which employs some 1,600 staff, will also report to the CGO.”
Asos chief executive Nick Beighton, who is currently recruiting for three other executives to oversee product, HR and strategy, says: “Robert’s proven track record in delivering high-impact marketing programmes for fast-growing ecommerce businesses means he is an ideal appointment for this new role. And, with more than half of our revenue coming from international markets, his global experience will help fuel our ability to take advantage of the growth opportunities ahead of us.”
In the world of fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), the position of CGO is nothing new and it can encompass marketing, sales, product development, finance and more, to drive business-wide growth. But a quick LinkedIn search under fashion retail in the UK brings up just two results: a CGO at Missguided and another at Ralph & Russo.
“It makes no sense,” says the managing director of one high street retailer. “If it is a new CMO role, why wasn’t the CMO interested in growth?
”If it is a hybrid role, it sounds too nebulous: what are the other execs doing? The Asos role just sounds like a normal customer director.
“It’s a bit ‘emperor’s new clothes’ – nothing new, just more title confusion.”
The HR director of one womenswear retailer describes it as an “evolution” of the traditional CMO role: “It’s a bit confusing, as it looks like a business development role,” he says. “How does it impact the chief strategy position? To me, this is an alternative name for a chief customer position and one that many companies are adding to their structure – or an evolution of the older CMO role, which just focused on brand.”
Fran Minogue, managing partner at executive search firm Clarity, concedes that the definition is not crystal clear, but offers a more succinct explanation: “Different people have different interpretations of the CGO role, but it brings all departments together with marketing and the customer as the primary functions,” she explains, citing Birge’s previous experience as chief marketing officer for travel company Lola. “We used to have only one department focusing on the customer – marketing – but that’s no longer the case.”
Retail has transformed dramatically over the last decade. The proliferation of sales channels has created more opportunities to reach customers through marketing. Initially, this led to the creation of the multichannel director (remember them?), serving customers via web, mobile, social and bricks and mortar.
But multichannel retailing did not take into account the integration of those channels – and thereby a single view of the customer. Enter the omnichannel director with a remit to create a seamless customer experience. With the customer at the forefront, a title change to chief customer officer became more appropriate.
A CGO is someone who has to wear many hats, to implement and execute a longer-term vision
So why change again? “Well, what do you do once you’ve transformed? You grow,” explains Lucy Harris, founding partner at executive search company Altrua. “The CGO role is a new entity and the way forward as we move away from traditional retail structures.
“Yes, it’s a bit like a chief customer officer but it hits all parts of the business, so they need to be an all-rounder. Everyone owns the customer now and growth will come from many channels.”
The HR director says the introduction of GDPR – the General Data Protection Regulation, which came into effect in May 2018 – adds another level of complexity to a traditional customer director role, which a CGO may be better qualified to manage: “The issue we are all facing is that brand is dead for most of the high street and pureplays. Customers are brand agnostic and searching for the best deal, wherever that may be.
“But ever since GDPR landed, customer acquisition has become increasingly more difficult, as has understanding the customer as they interact with so many channels across a global market.
“I think the CGO role is a hybrid of customer and marketing – it’s not a true CMO role as it is introducing customer and business development. This is where CMO is heading across the industry: acquiring and understanding the customer.”
A key difference between a traditional CMO and a CGO, believes James Hyde, director of recruitment firm Flint Hyde, is that the former lacks the “hands-on” experience of driving growth: “A CGO is someone who has to wear many hats, to implement and execute a longer-term vision. They tend to be people with an understanding of all functions, who can drive innovation as well as sales. It’s a maverick role.”
And that is precisely why the traditional CMO and customer director roles have not changed much over the past few years. With so many retailers on a financial knife edge, they naturally become risk-averse.
“Ultimately there is no point employing a visionary and then resisting when they want to implement change,” says an international headhunter. ”And even if they embrace it, significant results are expected immediately, which is not realistic.”
As such, he adds that not every retailer is in a position to make such a hire.
“The CGO was a hybrid role created by US digital-first brands who were experiencing rapid growth and required a leader with clarity of vision across marketing, sales and product and who could also run a P&L.
“It works when all channels internally are operating seamlessly with the consumer always front of mind,” he says. “However, the role is never going to work when you attempt to shoehorn it into retailers who are still wrestling with the challenges of overcoming legacy systems, an aging store portfolio and who simply do not have the internal mindset that champions innovation in the way a digital-first business has.”
But perhaps we are all getting caught up in semantics. Altrua’s Harris says she is hiring CGOs “left, right and centre”, even if retailers do not call them that. The international headhunter refers to the CGO as “an incarnation of what a modern chief executive looks like”.
Minogue sums it up: “We’re suckers for Americanisms – an HR director is now a chief people officer – so, yes, we will see more CGOs.”
Someone who can drive growth through a marketing function by placing the customer first and bringing all key departments together – that is the definition. You choose the name.