The humanist CMO

Leonardo da Vinci, the Renaissance artist, scientist, engineer and creative genius, is a role model for the humanist CMO we need today.

Sometimes, you can find some strange co-incidences when you explore an issue. Would you consider putting Leonardo da Vinci, the Renaissance and the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) into the same sentence? In the past, we’ve written about the key challenges the CMO faces today, or the new role of the CMO, as well as about Renaissance humanism and the dialectic of light and darkness. But these pieces have largely been unconnected. Today, I’ll try to connect the dots.

Leonardo da Vinci is the iconic figure of the Renaissance era. An artist as well as a scientist and an engineer, he was a creative genius like Steve Jobs in this day and age. Is Leonardo a role model for the CMO of today? That’s what leadership consultant Spencer Stuart proposed last year. And while the idea is not exactly brand new, it’s still worth contemplating. In my book, the most important aspect of it is humanism.

And that is, to be sure, an explicit departure from the 20th-century model of mass marketing and communications. This model was based on scale, on inside-out logic and on a combination of broadcast talking with selective, restricted listening. It was an industrial model. The role of the human being was that of the consumer. Marketing only listened to consumers in order to sell them more of the same. This model has expired, for a variety of reasons – and the digital revolution is only one of them.

The humanist CMO at the intersection of technology and liberal arts

Renaissance humanism wasn’t so much an ideology, as a movement of learning. It was about rediscovering the intellectual heritage of ancient Greece and Rome. Its agenda was education and training in the liberal arts, which include the natural sciences, social sciences, arts, and humanities. And that’s the point for the humanist CMO, who exists at the intersection of technology and liberal arts, to paraphrase Steve Jobs.

In the age of the Renaissance, it took the bubonic plague to help humanism achieve a breakthrough. Today, the pandemic is the straw that breaks the modern camel’s back. We often hear the idea that the current crisis has accelerated trends that were already visible before 2020. Like the 14th-century Renaissance, the current watershed moment didn’t arrive overnight. It has taken decades to build technology, creativity, experience, knowledge and visionary people.

Walter Isaacson, who has written biographies about both Steve Jobs and Leonardo da Vinci, sees a lot of similarities between the two and other modern visionaries:

“First and foremost, they believed in connecting art and science. Beauty and design and engineering were all the same to them. Jeff Bezos cares about space travel and storytelling and artificial intelligence and retail. Like Leonardo, he shows exuberance across many fields.”

The Renaissance women of the 21st century

So here are the Renaissance men of the 21st century. Are there also women? Indeed there are. Silvia Lagnado is the Chief Sustainable Growth Officer at Natura & Co, a company that’s better known in Europe for its sub-brands The Body Shop and Avon. Before joining Natura, she was the Global CMO at McDonald’s, where her impact was deemed significant as she defined the brand’s purpose. Her gig at Dove left a ginormous footprint through the worldwide campaign for Real Beauty. It was named the “Best Campaign of the Past 20 Years” by the PRWeek U.S. Awards.

Here’s what she says about the position of the CMO:

“I think the role of the CMO is to remember that companies and brands get built by stories and products that manifest the story. The stories are coherent and address a need or inspire people to use the product for their own affirmation, their own needs, functions and definitions of who they are.

I think that is at the heart. And for me, obviously, the world is now more complicated primarily because of technology. You can’t build brands the way we used to. The response that you get is more important than the stimulus that you create. Media is incredibly complicated, and if you don’t use data well, you fall behind because someone else gets better sites where there’s behavioral or psychological insights based on the data. There’s so much more to learn and more experts to work with. But the heart of what matters remains – the theory about how brands and businesses are built and our practicing that theory.”

Digital agility

Or let’s take Kirsten Allegri Williams, who dubs herself a digital-first Chief Marketing Officer. Now at Optimizely (formerly Episerver), she was the CMO of SAP SuccessFactors and, at the same time, has been an active opera singer for decades, singing classical opera and chamber music at major concert venues like the famous Carnegie Hall. Her education includes a Bachelor of Science in Political Science and a Bachelor of Arts in Music.

Here’s her advice for marketers:

“In two words: digital agility. It has traditionally been a challenge to balance marketing investments between traditional and digital spend, but in the span of just six to eight weeks, many of us became completely digital. Since we are all competing digitally, differentiating your brand experience and being relevant with the content you are providing is critical to standout.

Marketers need to decode the world and seed new strategies because there is growth in new unexpected areas. The job of the marketer is to get in front of those opportunities and create an impactful digital strategy.”

Prototypes of the humanist CMO

A third exemplary Renaissance woman is Stacie Henderson who has spent the past 15 years in luxury and retail, working for global brands such as Versace and Ferragamo. She describes herself as one of the first digital adopters in the luxury space, having brought technology to retail and global brands while developing dynamic growth strategies that blend online and offline tactics. Currently, she serves as the US Head of E-Commerce and Digital for Tod’s Group.

Stacie supported and advised Michelle Obama while she was the First Lady with The Better Make Room Campaign. This initiative aimed to inspire every student in America to complete their education past high school. Together with Stephanie Horton, she has founded Fashion Tech Connects with the mission to increase the number of women of colour in fashion and tech positions.

These three women (and men as well) are prototypes of the humanist CMO: savvy technologists with a broad liberal arts education, clarity of values and purpose, both personal and professional, and a visionary mindset. People like this are creating the 21st-century Renaissance.


Photo by Alex Azabache on Unsplash