'It is critical to connect the dots': How health system marketing chiefs explain their value

Marketing leaders told Becker's that strong relationships with CEOs and explaining the business value of what they do are crucial to a successful health system.

Chief marketing officers often don't see eye to eye with chief executives, disagreeing on the definition of their roles, their ability to drive growth and how to measure marketing successes, McKinsey & Co. reported in October. Reinvigorating these relationships could have financial benefits: The consultant found that CEOs who make marketing central to their strategic advancement are more than twice as likely to have greater than 5% annual growth.

Becker's reached out to health system marketing executives to find out if they've experienced this type of misalignment with their bosses and how they've handled it. Here are their responses:

Brian Deffaa. Chief Marketing Officer of LifeBridge Health (Baltimore): Based on my own experiences, as well as those I know in healthcare with a similar outside-of-healthcare background, the disconnect is not between the CEO and CMO (even this title presents a problem in healthcare). In many cases, the CEO and COO see the need to pivot to a consumer-oriented model, the need to compete for discretionary dollars, and assemble a repeatable, defensible brand-centered value proposition. These roles are often tasked with seeing around corners and as such they are often champions for change and modernity. In my case, our CEO has been my teams' biggest champion, understanding the need to bring to life a brand that connects with team members, patients and consumers alike and offers something unique to the care experience.

The business value of marketing is a complex story. Often, the infrastructure, interoperability, attribution and data cleanliness (more or less standard operating procedure in the consumer world) remain a huge problem in healthcare. The reasons are multifactorial: Rapid-fire acquisitions and consolidations, competing and antiquated information architecture, and a lack of understanding of how marketing works by healthcare lifers make the CMO equal parts agitator, educator and evangelist in an era of pandemics and shrinking margins. Decades-old biases toward billboards and print ads — along with their lack of ability to measure performance — make many chiefs, CFOs and clinicians ready to dismiss marketing's business value out-of-hand. Conversations around acquisition costs and customer lifetime value (which depend on good data) are either not had or held up as the holy grail of attribution while we "deepen our customer relationships." Metrics such as share-of-wallet are only now beginning to have real weight in long-term strategy discussions within health system boards. 

To drive our credibility and maintain our vital seat at the decision-making table, chief marketing officers and their teams must operate from a perspective of candor and truth-telling ("here's what's broken," "here's what it's going to take to fix it") paired with a data-first and data-always vision of the future ("here's why we want it") that empirically-trained peers can understand, get behind and respect. That's not to say it will be easy — it won't — but healthcare needs what we offer. The days of the little black bag and house calls are long gone — so how do we work with our clinical peers to make sure we respond to the needs of our patients/consumers through new structures of engagement and insight that deliver real value and wellness? That is our challenge.

Devika Mathrani. Chief Marketing and Communications Officer of NewYork-Presbyterian (New York City): I have not experienced this disconnect at NewYork-Presbyterian since marketing and communications has clear goals that are fully aligned to the enterprise goals. And our measures of success — key performance indicators, project or campaign-level reporting, projected profit-and-loss impacts, brand sentiment, etc. — share back correlations and direct contributions to those enterprise objectives. And when we test, we quickly measure, learn and reoptimize.

I spent 22 years in financial services before coming into healthcare, so unwavering alignment of performance marketing goals is how I was trained. I coach my team to operate as general managers who are contributing to the institution by flexing their skills and experience in marketing and communications. Whether in the paid marketing arena, brand-management earned media, content, editorial, social, digital, partnerships or the work we lead on customer and digital experience, our investments are optimized to deliver against enterprise goals. And through that discipline and regular communication and reporting, there is clear understanding of the role marketing and communications plays in delivering growth in a competitive market.

PJ Sibille. Vice President of Marketing and Communications at LCMC Health (New Orleans): It is essential to understand how your organization and leaders measure success and to align on metrics and efforts. As marketers, we collaboratively work together with other departments to discuss the business value of marketing with our senior leaders. Making the case for the business value of marketing is key but can mean different things to different leaders and stakeholders.

Marketing drives value and revenue through digital, customer relationship management, email marketing campaigns, and in other ways. We engage in open discussions to share our marketing value propositions to ensure all perspectives are heard and operations are aligned. We also connect with senior leaders using a data-driven approach to problem-solving by offering creative solutions that align with LCMC Health's organizational goals. This strategic collaboration enhances positive patient experiences and long-term success. 

Christine Woolsey. Chief Marketing and Communications Officer of Hospital Sisters Health System (Springfield, Ill.): There are executives in healthcare who question the business value marketing brings to the organization, and in my experience that is because the marketing leader or team doesn't do an adequate job linking everything they do back to strategic priorities and business goals.

Marketing teams in healthcare are plagued with requests for work that do not contribute directly to patient acquisition, retention, service-line growth and brand recognition. As a CMO, if your team is not oriented around those goals and creating measurable plans to achieve them, the first action should be to realign their work.

The next step is to ensure your CEO and other key executives understand the strategic focus of your work, what you will deliver and the return on investment. Finally, the CMO needs to report and promote marketing and communications successes in language and metrics business leaders understand.

In my career, I've been fortunate to serve as chief marketing and communications officer for two health systems and serve CEOs who considered marketing and communications to be strategic business drivers. It is critical to connect the dots for them and illustrate marketing and communications' value and contribution.

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