Who should lead our digital marketing transformation?” Many CEOs are looking for leaders to move the company’s marketing into the future. Too often, however, top marketers don’t make it onto the CEO shortlist because they’ve fallen into a digital CMO trap. It doesn’t have to be like this (from my cmo.com column).

The rise of digital gives companies unprecedented opportunities to learn from customers, talk with customers, and develop offers with them. Many mature companies, such as American Airlines, General Mills, or Nestlé, have successfully used digital to drive new growth (or to take costs out of the system). For marketers, the current age should be golden!

Unfortunately things don’t look as bright for many customer leaders. While some, such as McDonald’s Steve Easterbrook, rise and become CEOs, many marketers feel threatened by the proliferation of marketing responsibilities. In a food company, for example, five of the ten top team members are now involved in marketing areas that include customer insight analytics, campaign software, direct on-line sales channels, and customer data integration. Marketing was never “in charge” of the customer. But today, even more people across the organization are involved in marketing issues.

A recent Forbes study established that 40% of CMOs find it hard to align objectives with other functions and 39% have issues integrating social media into their strategy. Many CMOs struggle to find their role in this new world — and to make their careers work.

Company leaders are in desperate need of top marketers who can shape how the company understands and serves customers in a digital age. If you want to be one of these leaders, make sure you don’t fall into one of the following three digital CMO traps:

The Denial Trap

Digital marketing isn’t (yet) important in our market.” The denial trap is common in firms with very developed marketing models. Perhaps you are use to mass media advertising, direct sales, or annual fairs as proven ways to reach customers. Perhaps budgets for above the line, below the line, and digital sit in different departments. Perhaps an entire system of customers, agencies, and sales people expect that machine to continue as is. The idea that digital couldn’t help you reach customers better (or cheaper) is almost certainly wrong. Change in the way you do marketing is going to come — often as a landslide: The CEO of a cosmetics company, for example, has within four weeks fully integrated all marketing and digital teams, put a new CMO in place, and broke and old taboo by supporting one-to-one customer communication and direct sales.

The Woods for the Trees-Trap

It’s complicated I’m doing my best.” Getting your head around the myriad of digital marketing tools and techniques can be daunting. Not one day goes by without a new digital blog, book, or conference. As a knowledgeable marketing professional, your natural inclination may be to become the expert in everything digital as well — but that’s impossible. The CMO of a B2B engineering company, for example, initiated several complex customer data projects. Very soon, he didn’t see the woods for the trees. Timelines and costs grew out of control. The leader who replaced him, however, was more successful as he stopped all but the most valuable digital projects (customer profiling and campaigning), launched the first campaigns within eight weeks of his arrival, and built a panel of digital advisers to help him decide where best to focus his digital attention.

The Silo Trap

Marketing must own the customer relationship and the digital budgets.” Digital affects the entire company. Data arrives almost everywhere in an organization, most companies deploy more sales channels now, and members of staff meet customers at more touch-points than ever before. But sharing responsibility for customer activities with a CTO or a Chief Digital Officer can be hard for top marketers. Fights erupt about who owns the digital budgets or who has the say about a customer channel. The CMO of a large European retailer takes a very different perspective: “I don’t care who has the digital budgets — my role is to push our leaders to make the right things happen for customers.” No surprise she’s seen as one of the companies’ most influential board members. Thought leadership eats structure for breakfast.

Think: Customers – Company – Digital

If you find yourself in one of the three digital CMO traps, the first step is to recognize it. To get out, the model of digital thought leaders may help you. Try to think: Customers – Company – Digital.

Customers: Put yourself in the shoes of a customer today and three years from now. How can the company best help and serve you? When, where, and through which channels do you want to communicate and buy products? What would you not want to experience?

Company: Imagine you are fully in charge of your company now and three years from now. What are your biggest pain points? Where are the best opportunities for growth? Where can you cut costs to finance your growth? What would you not want your organization to do?

Digital: Having understood customers and your company, what are the one or two areas where digital technology can make the biggest difference within the next 12 months and the next three years? Which mistakes should you not make? Take these insights and consult several digital experts to help shape your digital change agenda.

CEOs are looking for new types of top marketers. These CMOs can lead the digital transformation — rather than deny its need, get stuck in complexity, or fight for territory. Digital thought leaders have a customer vision, take a top-management company perspective, and shape the highest return digital agenda. Leading the company’s digital transformation is your sweet spot as a top marketer. Start by avoiding the digital CMO traps.

How can you lead the digital transformation of your company?