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A marketing guru's top priority? No, it's not marketing

March 14, 2014: 11:24 AM ET

A chief marketing officer's top priority should be revenue growth.

By Maryam Banikarim

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FORTUNE -- I'm often on panels where I'm asked about the role of the chief marketing officer. Right out of the gate, I explain that there are a variety of CMO roles, and the title often tends to mean many different things depending on the company and even the field in which you operate.

But it shouldn't.

Quite simply, a chief marketing officer should always be focused on ways to generate growth. CMOs should champion the consumer, drive innovation, and be a source for identifying new market opportunities. As a partner to the CEO, he/she has to think like a general manager and understand all aspects of the business -- not just focus on "marketing."

Now, the tools a marketing executive uses to generate growth might be different from the tools employed by their colleagues, but at the end of the day, growth is what the marketing function is all about.

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Michael Francis was the CMO at Target (TGT) who helped redefine the discount category by making top designers accessible to all. Target became a major retail force as a result. When Neil Golden was CMO at McDonalds (MCD) he realized the importance of his multi-cultural consumer and used these insights to drive growth in the overall business. American Express CMO John Hayes realized that consumers wanted to celebrate Main Street -- and developed a program that is today's Small Business Saturday. Everyone from the U.S. government to local communities have come out to support this initiative, which has grown Amex's (AMX) credit card business on top of its brand visibility.

I've had numerous executives tell me that I'm not a "typical CMO" -- they've been surprised at my focus on the "business" vs. simply marketing. As CMO, of course I spend time working on advertising, branding, and overall communications strategy. But I also spend time focusing on company culture and cultural change, sales, and new revenue streams. My job is to think about how to use the levers of marketing to gain insight into where consumers and the marketplace are heading -- all with the goal of growing our business. In the end, it's about generating revenue. Without that, there is no "business."

What drew me to my role here at Gannett (GCI) was the fact that our CEO, Gracia Martore, wanted her first-ever CMO to play a strategic role on her team -- a marketer who would drive change and who was results-oriented. Once I arrived, it became clear to us that in order to best serve our clients and put the consumer at the core of our business, we needed to create a national sales organization and have it report to marketing. Aligning sales and marketing in this way has transformed the way we go to market. We have successfully changed the perception of Gannett in the marketplace, created new strategic partnerships, and helped grow the business in new ways.

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The role a CMO plays today is arguably more critical than ever before, given that the rate of change in business is unprecedented and that consumer behavior is evolving real-time. CMOs need to be able to see "around corners," anticipate consumer needs, and come up with new ideas, all with an eye towards generating growth and profitability.

At the end of the day, if you're not focused on revenue, you shouldn't be CMO.

Maryam Banikarim is senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Gannett Corp Inc.

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