CMO Role Model Reveals What Works

April 30, 2009


Growing up in Cleveland, Mike Linton thought he would be a famous writer. Instead he became a world-class CMO who is a role model and guide for marketers facing a challenging economy.

His junior year at Bowling Green State University, Linton was editing the campus newspaper. “I realized I liked running the paper even more than having my own column,” Linton says. “I went into business and never looked back.” He earned an M.B.A. at Duke and joined Procter & Gamble.

Though writing was a passion, Linton took a lot of math. “My undergrad degree is in market research. I've always gravitated to math. At its core, marketing is 70% math,” Linton adds. Linton credits his father, an electrical engineer, and his grandmother, a calculus teacher, for inspiring his love of numbers.

“Great advertising and packaging—outstanding marketing tactics—are fundamentally outcomes of the business strategy and the marketing process. They aren’t an end to themselves. They’re just windows into what you're really trying to accomplish,” Linton says. Yet Linton helped create top marketing programs, including hiring the Rolling Stones and Elton John while he was CMO of Best Buy and establishing the company’s Reward Zone concept.

“I got to consumer electronics and realized people love this stuff,” Linton says. “They can’t wait to plug it in, turn it on and listen to it. They’re just not as crazy about buying it as they are about having it.”

“We worked hard to change the whole marketing program, so the fun starts when you start thinking about it. It doesn’t start right after you buy it. That led to the ‘Turn on the Fun’ campaign and the entertainment deals. We were trading marketing for entertainment.”

At 52, Linton is a multi-disciplinary, multi-industry CMO who has worked at P&G, Progressive Insurance, Best Buy and eBay, where he just stepped down as CMO.

“Mike Linton is a pretty rare breed,” says Greg Welch, the global leader of Spencer Stuart’s consumer goods and services practice. “He is well-trained, incredibly smart and someone who has earned his stripes as a CMO.”

“After learning the marketing discipline at P&G, he put Best Buy on the map with their ‘focus on the customer, the customer experience and the brand’ concept,” Welch says. “At eBay, he jumped trade channels and demonstrated an ability to connect with consumers in a unique and relevant way in a highly analytical environment.”

In addition to management roles in the soap business, insurance, retail consumer electronics and the online world, Linton sits on two corporate boards, with Peet’s Coffee & Tea and the Allen Edmonds shoe company.

Linton learned about putting customers first at P&G. He still quotes a poem he read as a brand assistant, from a satisfied user of Lava soap. “The guy was using Lava to clean his dentures,” Linton says. At Progressive, Linton learned to link performance metrics and rewards in selling insurance. At Best Buy, he helped change the way consumers feel about buying electronics.
At eBay, he learned online marketing. “I didn’t want to miss out on the Internet,” he says.

Linton has one of the most diverse and successful marketing backgrounds of any CMO. He shares five points for marketers coping with the economic downturn:

  • Balance Between Short Term and Long Term Profitability: Linton cautions marketers to think like Intel and P&G, who invest in good times and in bad.
  • Be Objective About What’s Truly Happening: Be honest about the forecast and the expectations. Don’t bend the math to make the story.
  • Customers Will Buy the Brand Benefit: Don’t let the core brand benefit degrade. If price becomes the primary reason to purchase, the brand is at risk.
  • Marketing is Math: Make sure you’re being fact-based, and build programs that align with the current realities and the measures that drive the company. These are usually sales, margin and profit, not specific marketing measures. Work to connect the marketing measures to the key financials.
  • Compensation Drives Behavior: Get everyone on the same page--marketing staff, agencies and suppliers. Compensating for specific marketing measures can create a divided house as well as a disconnect with the rest of the company.

Linton is stepping down from his role as North America CMO for eBay, which he has held since 2006, but he enjoyed the experience and praises his colleagues. Linton goes to great pains to point out that marketing is a team sport. He’s always learning from subordinates, peers and managers.

“I’ve worked at really good companies. I’ve had fantastic trainers and some tremendous peers who have taught me a lot,” Linton says.

“One of the things I like most about Mike is his battle scars,” Welch says. “Not everything in his career turned to gold. Those experiences gave him maturity. He is unafraid to fight for what he believes. He pursues what he believes is best for his company.”
What’s next for Linton? He’s not sure, but it will be a learning experience. “I like consumers, general management and marketing,” Linton says. “I’m not wed to a specific industry. Hopefully it will be something fun and interesting that consumers care about,” he says.

His advice for marketers trying to build their careers: “Go to the place that trains you the best, not necessarily the place that pays you the most.”

Michael Krauss is president of Market Strategy Group, based in Chicago, and can be reached at or



 ©2009 Marion Consulting Partners