The Rise of the Chief Growth Officer

Author: David McMillin       

Bob Priest-Heck, CEO of Freeman

“Life is growth,” Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, wrote in his recently published memoir Shoe Dog. “You grow or you die.”

To avoid the dark side of that equation, some companies are doing more than forecasting annual revenue growth. They’re adding a role solely focused on driving bigger results: chief growth officer (CGO). Over the past two years, Coca-Cola, the Kellogg Company, Hershey’s, and a range of other established brands have appointed inaugural CGOs.

The demand for growth is not confined to consumer-facing names, though. In late May, Freeman appointed Janet Dell, the former CEO of Marsh ClearSight, as the company’s first CGO. After the announcement, Bob Priest-Heck, president and chief operating officer of The Freeman Company and CEO of Freeman, told Convene that the need for the role emerged as the company was developing its long-term strategic plan.

“In the process of analyzing which global trends would shape the next decade of business, we identified a clear need to focus specifically on the factors that fuel growth,” Priest-Heck said. “But adding a chief growth officer isn’t just about our own growth. When thinking about Freeman and the CGO position, it’s both an internal and external drive for growth.”

One of Dell’s responsibilities, Priest-Heck said, “will be to look at each of our customers to make sure that we’re matching the right kind of solutions to deliver the value they need relative to their current position. Think about an exhibiting company with a 10′ x 10′ booth. Sure, it’s small now, but what if it’s the next GoPro? We have to think about the whole life cycle of that company and scale the value we provide as they grow.”

According to employee engagement company Culture Amp, there were just 455 CGOs in the U.S. in 2017. That figure is poised (no pun intended) for growth. At the end of 2017, consulting firm Forrester predicted that more Fortune 100 companies will embrace the need for a leader dedicated to analyzing the factors that will fuel growth in 2018. Priest-Heck said that he expects to see the addition of a CGO or a similar role in other organizations in the events industry. “Some of our most forward-thinking customers are already making this shift,” he said. “And in the process, they’re moving from a ‘we sell space’ value proposition to more of a ‘we sell opportunity’ mindset.”

The Marketing Evolution’s Impact on Meetings

As the CGO title gets attached to more names on LinkedIn, it signals a shift in organizations’ overall leadership structure — and in marketing departments specifically, which have typically been responsible for acquiring new audiences and expanding the reach of their organizations. According to a blog post by Shannon Vize, digital strategist at tech-marketing staffing agency Mondo, CGOs can be particularly effective at developing growth-generating strategies and results — not only because that is their sole focus, but also because they tend to be cross-departmental, unlike chief marketing officers (CMOs).

Marketers are competing in a very noisy digital space, trying to make their messages stand out in their audience’s overflowing email inboxes, a crowded social-media landscape, and constantly streaming video advertisements. Cutting through that clatter to connect with new customers and drive growth is becoming increasingly challenging, and a CGO could help marketing departments zero in on opportunities to reach audiences.

Events are growing in many organizations’ marketing budgets. We have to think about how to leverage that growth.”

One of the opportunities they identify could be live events. Priest-Heck pointed out that the cluttered digital landscape is actually good news for the events industry. “As digital became the primary marketing source over the past decade, live brand experiences have emerged as a critical platform for engagement,” he said. “Events are growing in many organizations’ marketing budgets, and we have to think about how to leverage that growth.”

It’s important to realize, Priest-Heck added, that “the rules of marketing are being rewritten. That has a direct impact on the role of an event planner. Corporate marketers are very focused on engagement marketing, which involves everything from engaging mass audiences to hyper-specific goals such as targeting 13 people at a trade show or building a relationship with four CEOs. That focus on engagement is starting to be heard more clearly.”

Event organizers are no strangers to that buzzword — engagement has been the driving force behind rethinking on-site environments. In addition to engagement, event stakeholders — whether they are paying for a sponsorship package, an exhibition booth, or a group of attendee-registration packages — are likely to use CGOs to look at every aspect of every event through the lens of growth to ensure their organizations are moving in the right direction.

“Everyone is looking for growth,” Priest-Heck said. “That growth can come in many forms — top-line growth, growth within a relationship, growth of market share, or any other number of objectives. No matter what, no one is looking to go backward.”

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