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Leading with Empathy – Forbes CMO Next List in 2020

In September 2019, Forbes launched its second-annual CMO Next list, a compilation of 50 CMOs who are redefining the CMO role and who embody all that the role is becoming, can be and will be in the future. According to Forbes, the role of the CMO has evolved rapidly in the past few years. As the team describes, the “Chief marketing officers sit at the forefront of change within their organizations, driving technology investment, innovation, customer experience, new-product development, and the shaping of purpose, values, position and culture”. This has become even more imperative in 2020.

The Wall Street Journal reiterates that the pandemic has changed the role of the CMO. In an article in June, “Executive recruiters say the COVID-19 crisis has heightened the value of chief marketers who can tap into the customer mindset and leverage those insights to drive growth.” Customer insight and understanding is paramount, along with agility, empathy, and digital savvy. The game has profoundly changed, so at DX3 we decided to find out what the game-changers have been up to in the past year. We analyzed the LinkedIn profiles and connected Twitter accounts of all the CMOs on the 2019 Forbes CMO Next list. Only 68% are in the same role with the same company as this time last year. The remaining 32% have either moved to a new company, started their own initiatives, or moved to more advisory and investment roles. Four of the 50 had no social media activity in 2020, and the findings of the remaining 46 cover five main themes beyond company product and service advertisement.

Marketing & Organizational Advice

23 out of the 50 CMOs share “How to” information, through articles, posts, and podcasts. One of the most popular posts shared with this CMO community, was a crowd-sourced list of suggestions compiled by Mayur Gupta (formerly Freshly), “Building Authentic Brands That Drive Growth - Tips From Top Leaders”. Another top content creator is Andréa Mallard (Pinterest), who share numerous data-driven consumer insights for marketers, in articles with high visual appeal.

Social Movements

Many CMOs (19 out of 50) make statements about social movements and issues, the most common being Black Lives Matter. The CMOs of Postmates and Sephora mention significant changes, such as the launch of the Black Owned Restaurants Collection in over 130 cities, and the commitment to the 15% Pledge, to develop Black-owned businesses for long term success.

Other social issues mentioned included feeding America, order local, destigmatizing mental health conditions, the Facebook boycott, anti-Asian discrimination, sustainability, climate change, and expungement of criminal records for marijuana.


18 CMOS share COVID-19-related initiatives or pivots within their organisations. Russell Barnett (My/Mo Mochi Ice Cream) mentions the launch of the hygienic single-serve packaging. Carrie Bienkowski (formerly Peapod, currently Athletica) shared a new specialised service to rehabilitate patients recovering from COVID-19. Nick Ragone (Ascension) has a remarkable variety of initiatives as a healthcare company, including creating a podcast, sending a team of nurses to a COVID-19 hotspot in Texas, and creating memories for families of dying patients by printing their last recorded heartbeats. Pri Shumate (formerly World Surf League, currently Airbnb) shared the launching of an online festival of experiences hosted by athletes timed to the original kickoff of the 2020 Summer Olympics.

Mentorship/Professional Support

6 out of the 50 CMOs offered opportunities for mentorship and professional support. Three out of the six posted the same viral message: “If you’ve recently been laid off and we know each other personally, please get in touch and let me know how I can help you (DM me here). Can I put you in touch with a contact or a company? Can I write a recommendation for you? Or send someone an email to put in a good word? Please let me know if there is anything I can do. Note: Feel free to copy-paste and amplify this important message.”

Company Offers

6 out of the 50 CMOs mentioned available or new company offers, with initiatives such as donations of goods (Josh Dean, S’well), (Soyoung Kang, eos Products), removal of paywalls (Deirdre Findlay, formerly Stitch Fix, currently Condé Nast), donation of advertising space (Melissa Hobley, OKCupid), and introductory offers (Kevin Keith, Orangetheory).

Overall, empathy is at the forefront for CMOs on social media. Forbes’ Next CMOs of 2019 are providing marketing insight and advice, supporting social movements, rolling out COVID-19 initiatives, and offering professional mentorship and support. While company news and updates are prevalent, advertisement of company offers is limited. The community is tight-knit, and strongly supports each other and habits of continuous learning. Above all, storytelling and simplicity remain the way forward for the marketing sector in 2020.

Sneha Thayil is a research professional, developing conferences from inception to execution.  She has previously lived in Hong Kong, Malaysia, India, Singapore, Italy, Somalia, and various cities in the United States. Sneha holds a M.A. in International Relations from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Chicago. Sneha is passionate about inclusive, multidisciplinary methods to build peaceful and sustainable societies.