A remarkable shift has been taking place in automaker executive ranks: Women now rule the U.S. marketing world.
In 2018, Joy Falotico took on the chief marketing officer title at Ford Motor Co. The next year, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles tapped Marissa Hunter to fill a new role, head of North America marketing. Months later, Deborah Wahl at General Motors and Angela Zepeda at Hyundai were named CMOs.
This past fall, marketer-in-chief roles went to Allyson Witherspoon at Nissan, Tara Rush at Audi and Kimberley Gardiner at Volkswagen.
And two other moves took effect last week. Lisa Materazzo became vice president of marketing for Toyota North America. And Suzy Deering, hired from eBay, joined Ford to replace Falotico as CMO. (Falotico now has just one big job instead of two. She’s still president of Lincoln.)
The upshot: Women now control the marketing purse strings and strategies at seven of the eight biggest brands by sales volume in the U.S., as well as some other significant marques. Their worlds account for some $10 billion in annual spending in the U.S. alone, according to figures from sibling publication Ad Age.
Count Jan Thompson among those thrilled to see it all happen. She was a pioneer, holding a VP of marketing title at Mazda 30 years ago, when female auto executives of any kind were rare. Now, at age 71, the Chrysler-Toyota-Mazda-Nissan vet is still at it as marketing chief for HAAH Automotive Holdings, the distributor working to bring Chinese brands to the U.S.
Among the points she shared with me last week:
- The appointment of Mary Barra to lead GM seven years ago shattered glass ceilings far beyond CEO suites.
- Women are especially well-suited to succeed in marketing as the nature of the business has become much more data-driven. They tend to be good at listening, collaborating and multitasking — valuable skills when it comes to juggling ad agencies, trying to understand what consumers want and selecting the best tools of the digital age to aim varied messages at slivers of the population.
Kimberly Whitler, an associate professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, says great marketing requires a dual set of skills that other fields don’t.
You need data science to understand consumers and the marketplace. And you need a creative sensibility to use the information to connect with consumers.
The knee-jerk view is that it’s a soft discipline that tends to appeal to women, she says. In contrast, she suspects that her young students and other women are intrigued by the breadth of the challenge required to be an effective marketer.
“We think about the consumer, we think about the competition, and then we draw a strategy,” she says. “All sorts of science and data and testing come into play before ads are created.”
Still, Thompson doesn’t believe that women understand car buyers any better than men do. And she and Whitler dispute the notion that automakers are tapping female marketing bosses because women make the majority of car-buying decisions.
In Whitler’s view, that’s akin to saying left-handed marketers make the most effective appeals to left-handers.
“This way of thinking — that one person can represent a population — defies the law of statistics,” she said. “One person is not generalizable to a population. Hiring a female CMO to represent all women would not be wise.”
Presumably, all the female marketing chiefs in automotive C-suites have been hired for better reasons. If so, successive generations of female CMOs may well become the norm — in much the same way that it’s been for men throughout the auto industry forever.